In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Burdock Adventures, Week Ending 6/2/2019

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

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

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

First Year Burdock Roots

First Year Burdock Roots

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

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

Second Year Burdock Patch

Second Year Burdock Patch

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

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

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

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Harvested Burdock Stalks

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

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

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

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

I eventually gave up on peeling these smaller pieces.

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

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

Finally... Peeled Burdock Stalks

Finally… Peeled Burdock Stalks

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

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

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


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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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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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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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Salsify Bisque

One of the themes I am exploring this year is “localizable” recipes. Or maybe I mean “localable”. I’m not sure what the word is/should be yet because I am still inventing it.

Basically, the goal is to find, try and publish recipes that can be made with local, in-season ingredients for central Maryland. So even if they aren’t ACTUALLY local because I bought the ingredients at massive grocery store which is diversely stocked thanks to a global supply chain enabled by cheap oil, the  ingredients could be sourced locally if that same global supply chain came to an end. (Not speculating on the “why”… there are other blogs for that conversation.)

Since I recently brought my winter garden to a close, I thought I would take this opportunity to try a “localable” / “localizable” meal. Turns out I harvested just enough salsify to try this soup recipe.

Salsify Bisque - a local-able/in season winter soup

Salsify Bisque – a local-able/in season winter soup

You guys. It was SO good. I am very sorry I don’t have more salsify, because the soup was amazing. I substituted sliced shiitake mushrooms for the oysters, and added them after blending the soup so they would retain their shape and texture. (Local mushrooms could be used instead easily enough; dried if needed to be available in January.) I garnished the soup with cajun-spiced pumpkin seeds, cheddar cheese cubes, and minced carrot greens. (I didn’t have any parsley.)

One important note about the original recipe: it serves four if you are having an appetizer-sized bowl of soup! For the main (or only) course of dinner, it serves two. Two who were very sad that the pot was empty and there wasn’t more.

(And I know wild/feral salsify grows locally, but I have been unable to identify it except when it’s already too late to eat it!)