In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.

Leave a comment

Learning New Behaviors

I have a problem.

Well, I have many problems. But most of all, I recently realized I am afflicted by a compulsive need to buy stuff. And buying stuff, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily “bad.” It comes down to what you are purchasing, and why. Every single tool and all the supplies and a bunch of books for a brand new hobby I became infatuated with? Yeah, that’s been the story of my life. Luckily at my age there aren’t many “new” hobbies left for me to repeat that mistake.

No, my real challenge (or “opportunity” if you prefer to think positive) is buying solutions for every little difficulty I encounter.  Maybe you can relate. I have a long history of doodads and gadgets and whatnots for every little hiccup I might encounter. The majority of them promised to make cooking easier and faster. Cooking and I enjoy a love-hate relationship, so anything that helps make mealtime less of a chore was a worthy investment in my book. Similarly for health. (The easy spending part, not the love-hate part!) Exercise equipment, videos, yoga props, more videos, nutritional supplements – you name it.

If I could buy my way out of a problem, why shouldn’t I?

Ummmm, because all these “solutions” clutter my home and very few ever made good on their promises of improving my life.

Because however cheap they may be, these consumer goods still cost money that might be better used elsewhere. And as they accumulate, you suddenly need more storage, more room, a bigger house, a store room, a new organization system, and maybe even a whole kitchen remodel. Just to accommodate all this great stuff … that … stops … being … so … great … when I can no longer find it because its buried under even more stuff.

(I won’t even go into how manufacturing and global shipping of cheap consumer goods impacts developing economies, the environment, and the rapid depletion of our planet’s natural resources. That’s already been covered quite thoroughly in other print and online sources!)

Basically, what it all boils down to, is that most of these purchases have actually been waste in terms of my life. Waste of money, waste of time, waste of the planet’s resources. In other words, this kind of spending is not in line with my values, and needs to stop.

But I’ve built this habit up over a lifetime, and modern society makes it so very easy to just keep spending.

…which means I have plenty of opportunities to practice new behaviors!

For example: I need a spiky massage ball.

I mean, REALLY need one.

See, everyone has some part of their body where they carry tension when they are stressed, often in the lower back, shoulders, neck, etc. Well in my case, I apparently clench my legs. Don’t laugh, this is a real thing! It may be related to the “flight or fight” syndrome. My leg muscles – particularly my hamstrings – tighten as they prepare for my mad dash away from danger. You know, lions, tigers and bears, or more often, bad traffic, poor customer service and telemarketers that call during dinner. True life and death stuff, there. But my lizard brain doesn’t know the difference, and lately my hamstrings have been seizing up to the point of cramping.

A spiky massage ball would solve my problem. I could sit on the floor with it under my thigh, and allow gravity and the weight of my leg to apply pressure to ease my cramped muscles.

You know what happens next, right? A quick internet search reveals that sells them for a great price for TWO of them, complete with Prime shipping. They would get here literally in less time than it would take to drive to every possible local store to see if they had the spiky massage balls I so desperately need. (No, calling the stores to ask a real live human being is not a viable option in my life… maybe if I could buy a product that lets me text the store…) All these thoughts skitter through my mind in a flash, and my finger reaches for the bright yellow “buy it now” option on my phone screen.

And because this is the exact habit I aim to break, my finger drifts past “buy it now” and taps “add to cart” instead.

Adding the item to my cart creates space between my compulsion to accumulate and the actual act of purchasing yet another product.

Instead of buying the spiky massage balls, I am buying time.

I put down my phone, and go back to my day, confident I can complete my transaction at some future point if needed.

Luckily, later that day, a solution presented itself.

I had recently found a(nother) golf ball while doing yardwork. While it is smaller than the massage balls, and missing those tantalizing spikes, it turns out to do the job just fine. After a few tries I found the perfect pressure point on the back of my leg for the deepest impact, and then I held the yoga head-to-knee pose (janusirsasana) for five minutes per leg.

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

And it worked. And it was free. And it was immediate, since I already had the golf ball and didn’t have to wait for even Amazon Prime shipping. It even fits easily in my purse, so I can take it on the road if needed. (And I have, in fact.)

Best of all, I had the proud feeling that comes from knowing I solved a problem on my own, rather than turning to the marketplace to solve it for me.


Chinkawhat? Week Ending 11/11/2018

Before we even start this week’s post, let me state clearly: I did not find an Alleghany chinkapin (Castanea pumila). This plant is also known variously as chinqupin or dwarf chestnut, and is closely related to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) which has been severely decimated by the cleverly-named chestnut blight. Chinkapin grows in the same range as the American chestnut, which includes central Maryland; since chinkapin is more resistant to blight, the smaller trees – and their nuts – should be easier to find.

What I found instead was a pile of discarded branches.

Allegheny Chinkapin Branches

A pile of discarded Allegheny Chinkapin branches

I don’t know who dumped these branches on the roadside. I saw them on a walk to the creek near my home last month. (Yes, it took me a while to write about them… sorry!)

I wasn’t sure what they were at first, but when I saw the burs which looked so much like chestnuts, I had to investigate.

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Here’s the thing: none of my foraging books, NOT A ONE OF THEM, had mentioned anything about the chinkapin. It was just me and my Google-fu. Luckily I quickly found my answer.

Once I knew for sure what I had found, I went back to scour the dead branches for any fully developed nuts. Apparently the nuts are even sweeter than regular chestnuts, and unlike chestnuts can be consumed raw. They are not found in stores however, for several reasons. The nuts are small and tend to only have one nut per bur.  Oh, and they have an annoying habit of starting to germinate before they even come off the tree. (See for instance the photo about halfway down this page.)

And let me assure you: those burs hurt if try to handle them without gloves! Notice how my sleeve is pulled protectively over my hand in this photo!

Chinkapin Bur

Chinkapin Bur … Ow ow ow!

Why would someone cut off these branches and dump them like this? I have no idea but I wish they had waited a little longer! Unfortunately the branches appeared to have been cut just as the nuts were starting to ripen. Of all the burs we pried open, only three had fully developed, beautiful round nuts. (The roundness of the nut is another identifying characteristic, as opposed to chestnuts which have one flat side.)

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

So I did what any forager, gardener and permaculturist would do in my place: I planted them! We’ll see what happens. I tried to treat the nuts like nature – like they had fallen on the forest floor to suffer through the cold, damp winter until the warmth of spring reaches them. Unfortunately I will have to wait for months to know whether it worked!

Leave a comment

Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 11/4/2018

Along with the various nuts available for fall foraging, this is also the season for a native fruit, the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

American persimmons are usually dioecious meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees so both are necessary to produce fruit. Occasionally trees occur that are monoecious, but from what I have read this is particularly rare in persimmons. The best way to know you have found a female tree is to check in late fall, after the leaves have fallen but fruit still clings to the branches.

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

The fruit are much smaller than the Japanese varieties of persimmon you may find at the grocery store. They are also trickier to eat unless they are. Absolutely. Perfectly. Ripe. Woe be unto the tongue of anyone sampling a fruit even slightly underripe. The high level of tannins in the unripe fruit creates a mouth-drying experience that is intensely unpleasant. Unfortunately “ripe” for persimmons means “soft” and “easily damaged.”  Like pawpaws, the ripest fruit can be found on the ground, often leading to a muddy, thorny, or poison-ivy mess depending on the tree’s surroundings.

Unfortunately, the tree I found sits on a cluttered, overgrown roadside so it was challenging even reaching the tree, much less finding edible fruit on the ground surrounding it. We’ve had an abnormally wet year here in the mid-Atlantic, and the ground almost everywhere is mud.

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Additionally, persimmons take a long time to ripen. Between the timing, the mud, and the delicate nature of ripe persimmons, I only found a handful of usable fruit the last time I visited the tree. Luckily the temperature has only dropped below freezing a few nights this fall, so I hope more fruit will ripen before they get damaged by a major freeze. (There is a common belief that frost helps the fruit ripen. While it does help soften them, this is due to damage, not the fruit being any riper. It just happens that persimmons tend to ripen around the time when freezing temperatures occur more regularly.)

Ripe persimmons... aren't they lovely?

Ripe persimmons… aren’t they lovely?

Even though I only gathered a handful of persimmons, I still tried using my chinois to process the pulp since that was the technique described in Eating Appalachia. It went very slowly due to the size of the seeds compared to the fruit overall. Between removing the seeds and the peels, the seven persimmons pictured above only gave me about two tablespoons of puree! Once again, I am stymied by inadequate quantities of foraged harvest to actually use for anything.  All the recipes in Eating Appalachia, for instance, called for a cup or more of puree. Adding insult to injury, the puree still has a trace of the astringency which makes it unpleasant to eat straight.

Leave a comment

Pawpaw Preserves, Week Ending 10/28/2018

I lied.

Well, maybe that’s a bit strong.

I didn’t “lie” exactly. But I certainly didn’t believe for a second that my improvised freezer jam-style pawpaw preserves might, just might, actually turn out to be tasty.

Maybe I should say I was wrong… but that’s much harder to admit!

Much to my surprise, after a few weeks of the preserves languishing in my fridge, a quick sample revealed it was actually delicious. I guess the flavors had time to mellow and relax and blend, and by that time the instant pectin had set up to an acceptably spreadable texture.

So here is the pawpaw preserves recipe after all. (Sorry I don’t have the fancy WordPress business plan that allows plugins for nicely formatted recipes. Hopefully you can copy & paste it to your word processor of choice to print or save.) Also the blog post continues below the recipe. I am always frustrated when I have to scroll through mountains of text to reach the recipe in a post, so I try not to foist the same experience on my readers (all two and a half of you – hi!).

This recipe was a mishmash of the original recipe, Ball’s generic instructions for freezer jam, and my own compulsive need to tweak any recipe that crosses my kitchen counter.

Pawpaw Preserves – Freezer Jam Style

1 1/2 c pawpaw puree (mine was relatively lumpy for texture purposes)
1/3 c sugar, plus more as needed to taste
3 Tbs bourbon
3 Tbs apple cider vinegar
2 Tbs water
2 Tbs instant pectin
1/4 tsp ground spice bush
1/4 tsp salt

Heat pawpaw puree and water gently in a pan over low heat, so it just simmers for 10 minutes. (I am not sure if this is “really” necessary, but that is what they did in the original recipe so I did it too!) You can add water if it seems too thick, or strain if it seems too lumpy.

Stir in vinegar, bourbon, spice bush and salt. Taste and add a tablespoon at a time more sugar (for sweet) and / or vinegar (for tart) according to your personal preferences.

Allow the preserves to cool slightly, then whisk in pectin. Store in containers in the fridge or freezer.

Makes about 3 cups.

Pawpaw Preserves

Pawpaw Preserves

Here’s my challenge: how do I use the preserves? I haven’t eaten toast since I stopped eating grains years ago. And after many failed attempts, I finally realized there is no “perfect paleo bread”. I wasted a lot of time and money trying to find or create the ideal recipe for grain-free bread before I finally realized that for me, personally, mimicking mainstream food was actually counterproductive to how I had chosen to eat.

As a result, I don’t eat many things one would normally top with preserves.

If I ate ice cream, I could imagine dribbling preserves over it.

Stirring it into yogurt might work.

Basting pork or chicken while grilling or roasting might also be an option, though after reading Eating Appalachia I’d be concerned about how high heat would impact the flavor. Plus at least one member of my family wouldn’t even try dinner if there were pawpaw anywhere in it.

What’s a forager to do?

Feed it to friends and family, of course!

I decided to share the preserves at a Halloween party, and they were a hit! I topped crackers with goat cheese and a dollop of preserves and They. Were. Amazing. The goat cheese contributed a slight tang to offset the flavor of the preserves, and the cracker provided a satisfying crunch.

Pawpaw Preserves, Served

Pawpaw Preserves, Served

(I even made a few with store bought almond flour crackers, because no one at a party should eat a dish the cook won’t eat herself.)

Tips: Remember to assemble the crackers just before eating, and only make as many as will get consumed quickly. (The crackers eventually absorb the moisture from the goat cheese and turn soggy.) Also be prepared for a LOT of questions about what pawpaws are because most people haven’t heard of them, even in areas where they grow wild!

1 Comment

Foraging Fails, Week Ending 10/21/2018

Back in August, I posted about ground cherries (also known as husk cherries, Physalis spp), one of the random but welcome edible weeds growing in my yard.

I was excited to finally try ground cherries. I allowed them to grow in three different places, even letting them take over a corner of my strawberry bed to make sure I’d get enough fruit, once they were finally ripe, to actually make something.

(A recurring challenge this year has been finding enough wild edibles to be worth using in a recipe. For instance, wild grapes were scarce, and mostly out of my reach except for one small cluster. Recently, I stumbled across some discarded Allegeny chinkapin (also spelled chinquapin, Castanea pumila) branches with burs still attached but only managed to find a whopping six full-sized nuts.)

I checked on the ground cherries once most of the husks turned brown, papery and lacy. Imagine my horror to find that someone (or something) had beaten me to the prize!

Pierced papery ground cherry husks

Pierced papery ground cherry husks

Every single one had been pierced, and the fruit stolen. The only ones which still had berries were still green, and therefore unripe. And there weren’t even enough of those to actually use!

I checked all three locations in my yard – strawberry bed, under the back deck, and next to the chicken run.

I finally found one overlooked ripe ground cherry to sample.

One Lone Ground Cherry

One Lone Ground Cherry

It was, shall we say, anticlimactic.

Sort of tomato-y, sort of tart, not at all sweet like I’d hoped given all the “ground cherry pie” recipes are sprinkled around the internet. So, while it would have been nice to harvest enough fruit to use, I am not as heartbroken over this foraging fail as I might have been!

Maybe cultivated ground cherry varieties are tastier, but I won’t even try growing them after seeing how ravaged the wild ones were. Hopefully whatever ate the fruit enjoyed the experience more than I did! (I’m assuming birds; maybe the same cardinals that ate most of my blueberries earlier this summer.) I’ll leave stands of plants by the chicken coop and under the deck, but I won’t them take over the strawberry bed again!

1 Comment

Don’t. Look. Down.

Just kidding.

If you are foraging for woodland nuts or mushrooms, you have no choice. You must look down. That’s where the good stuff is, whether fallen hickory nuts, or maitake growing at the base of an oak tree.

Shellbark Hickory Nuts

Shellbark Hickory Nuts on the Forest Floor

The problem is – particularly if you are new to foraging, or in unfamiliar woods – it is ridiculously easy to get disoriented when you stare at the ground while circling trees. This has happened to me twice (so far) this year. The first time occurred back in June while mushroom hunting (unsuccessfully) after a lengthy rainy spell. The second time was just last week, while collecting shellbark and mockernut hickory nuts (and as always hoping to stumble across edible fungus).

Luckily both times I was in confined wooded areas in an underdeveloped business park. Roads formed natural boundaries so I would have found my way out eventually. Unfortunately the first time, I was so turned around, I went away from the road and stumbled onto a cow pasture and homes I didn’t even know were in the area! It was surreal … and panic-inducing.

Both times I relied on my phone’s GPS to reorient myself and trek back to safety, but this isn’t a reliable solution – phone batteries die; signal might not penetrate remote areas; smart phones fall and break. So as a PSA, here are some approaches to not losing your way in the woods.

Bad idea: Bread crumbs.

Good idea: Know or learn basic orienteering, and carry a compass.

Bad idea: Counting on a smartphone app. For all the reasons mentioned above regarding phone GPSs.

Good idea: Take a friend into the woods, and take turns scouting for forage and staying stationary so at least one person remains oriented at a given time.

Bad idea: Relying on your memory. Unless major landmarks dot the landscape or you practically grew up in the woods, the forest will never look the same each time you visit. Trees fall, undergrowth gets overgrown, excessive rain creates ravines, etc.

Good idea: Use a walking stick stabbed into the ground, flagging tape tied to a branch, or other very visible object to mark the location where you start circling. Periodically re-orient yourself by glancing around for your man-made landmark.

Bad idea: Keep the road (or path or other forest boundary) always within sight, and resist the urge to wander further into the woods. Trust me… this won’t work. Whatever you are hunting is just … a little … farther … in …

There you go! A few more ways to stay safe in the woods while foraging. Personally, I plan to add a compass and brightly colored flagging tape to my kit for future forest adventures.

I will add these suggestions (the good ones, anyway!) to the Foraging Safety page as well.


Leave a comment

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!