In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Knotty Food, Week Ending 4/21/2019

Last Japanese knotweed post, promise! At least for this year. The knotweed has mostly grown to the stage where it is too mature to eat. I may be able to get one more harvest; we’ll see.

We recently found another patch of knotweed, only a few miles from our house. We are  watching this one even more carefully to make sure it stays there and doesn’t creep any closer to here. We speculate that last year’s rain storms washed knotweed roots to this location from somewhere further upstream.

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Foraging Japanese Knotweed

Apparently once the knotweed grows tall, as shown in this photo, you can still harvest the leafy tips. You look for where the stem snaps off (like removing the woody parts from a spear of asparagus), then discard the leaves. I haven’t tried this myself; I am content to wait until next year’s shoots.

(For my previous posts on Japanese knotweed this season, you can read here and here.)

I took SkyeEnt’s excellent suggestion to use knotweed for chutney.  I halved the recipe which I found in the comments here, and still ended up with almost four cups. Everyone enjoyed it at a birthday party we hosted, but there is enough leftover I may need to freeze it. Or can it, if I am feeling extra motivated … although probably not. (Knot?)

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

Japanese Knotweed Chutney

I also started a batch of knotweed liqueur, using this recipe. Several months must pass before I can tell you how it turned out. Someone remind me later this summer! I used the thicker stalks for the liqueur so I didn’t have to worry about whether they were tough, or needed to be peeled.

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

Japanese Knotweed Liqueur

I love the faint pink tinge, already present after a few days of soaking in the vodka. (And if you must know, I used high proof vodka so this will be an especially boozy liqueur.)

I decided to skip the knotweed pickles, because it didn’t make sense to invest time and energy into them when  my family won’t even eat homemade cucumber pickles!

The other recipe in which I did knot use knotweed was strawberry rhubarb pie.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

While many authors suggest using knotweed anywhere a recipe calls for rhubarb, I wasn’t ready to make that swap in this classic dessert. Maybe next foraging season!

Plus I have a whole year to dream up other ways to eat this very invasive plant. Eat the invaders!


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Knot 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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The Dead of Winter, Week Ending 3/3/2019

The weather in central MD in early March continues to alternate between soggy and frozen… when it isn’t both simultaneously! Even today, the forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow. I have not tried to dig up the wild Jerusalem artichokes because the ground remains frozen.

Despite the cold and damp, some wild edibles continue to thrive. This week, I’ll be talking about one of the less appreciated greens available this time of year: purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is as ubiquitous as field garlic, spreading in massive tangled carpets across any disturbed ground it can reach.  Purple dead nettle is most recognizable in early spring, when the purple flowers and leaf tips blanket roadsides and fields.

Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family, and shares the characteristic square stem cross section of other mints. (As does henbit, it’s more frilly cousin, which I may discuss in a future post.) The leaves are heart-shaped, especially when younger, and become more elongated and pointy as the season progresses.  The younger leaves may be confused with garlic mustard first-year leaves, and I discuss the differences here. The leaves also look similar to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the fine hairs on the leaves do not sting – hence the name “dead” nettle.

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

As the season progresses, the tips turn purple as the flowers begin to form. At this stage, purple dead nettle is very recognizable. (You can see some icon photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site.)

Despite the small leaf size, it is easy to harvest dead nettle in quantity. If you find a healthy patch, you can collect entire lengths of stem, with the leaves attached. Once back in your warm kitchen, you can remove the leaves from the stems if you prefer, but both are edible. If using the greens in a recipe (for instance, as a replacement for spinach), I prefer just the leaves. Because of their relatively small size, they do not need to be chopped prior to use.

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Purple dead nettle is a great solution for “my recipe calls for spinach, but I don’t want to drive to the store to buy some.” Yes, I have actually done this myself! The photo above shows dead nettle used in place of spinach when I made Creamy Tuscan Garlic Chicken last week.

The cooked leaves hold their texture very nicely in sauces and offer a mild chewiness compared to other greens. The stems, in turn, are crunchy so work better sauteed or steamed with the leaves as a vegetable side dish. While purple dead nettle can be eaten raw as well, I am not a fan of the slightly fuzzy texture to the leaves.

Generally speaking, I would choose wild greens like stinging nettle or lambs quarter over dead nettle for most culinary uses. But in early March, we take whatever edibles nature sees fit to give us!


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/24/2019

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

You heard (read) right.

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

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

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Field garlic stands out against the grass

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

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

Field garlic doesn't mind the snow

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

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

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

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

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

Harvested field garlic

Harvested field garlic

Ways to enjoy field garlic include:

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

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

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

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

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


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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!)


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Complete Organic Fail

Well, I shouldn’t say “fail”. But using COF – “Complete Organic Fertilizer” – didn’t exactly go according to plan!

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

So Beautiful, So Unwanted

As I mentioned a few months ago, this year I opted for a more proactive approach to my garden’s health. Rather than waiting for pests and disease to strike, and then doctoring the plants to restore their vitality, I am trying instead (or more correctly, in addition) to fertilize my garden on a consistent basis.

I used the “complete organic fertilizer” recipe from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. Here is a copy of the recipe online. Problem was, not all the ingredients were available in my local DIY hardware stores. I had to order bat guano and cottonseed meal from Amazon. And the box of cottonseed meal was really small. And I am trying to purchase less if I can, or purchase locally if I must buy something. I mean, is eating from your own garden really “local” if you had garden amendments shipped to you from Amazon?

I called the local feed stores to see if anyone had seed meal. Seed meal is what remains after squeezing oil out of the seeds; the leftovers get fed to livestock. Buying seed meal bulk is more cost effective, if you can find it.

I couldn’t find it.

Everyone I called knew what I was talking about, but nobody still carried seed meal. Finally on the third try, the voice on the other end said, “You might try the farmer’s coop in town.”

(I guess this area still counts as the “country” if there is a farmer’s cooperative located downtown.)

Sure enough, they had seed meal in 50 lb bags, for less than $30. Versus the $50 for a 20 lb bag from Amazon. Flax seed meal, to be exact. Like you open the bag, inhale, and it smells exactly like the flax seed meal you buy at the grocery store. I don’t think it’s “graded” for human consumption though.

I schlepped the bag home, whipped up a fresh batch of COF, side-dressed my veggies and kicked back with a cocktail to await the amazing results of a healthy garden.

What I got was … flax. Everywhere.

Flax Says Hi

Flax Says Hi

I checked the label on the bag. According to the label, rather than flax seed meal, it was ground flax. Apparently viable seeds lingered in the mix, and flax loves the growing conditions I’d carefully cultivated for the vegetable garden. I mean seriously. I learned that flax might as well be a weed, it grows so vigorously in locations it isn’t wanted.

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Flax Seedlings Everywhere

Other things I learned from this experience:

Flax seedlings can be turned under like a green mulch. Sometimes that’s the only way to combat them.

Flax seedlings are edible raw, and make a nice garnish on salad or fried eggs. Yes, really. Don’t judge.

Mmmm Flax Garnish

Mmmm Flax Garnish

I also learned that when you give up on weeding all the flax, and just let them grow, the flowers bloom a beautiful blue. Also, you can harvest the seeds … yay, just what I want, more flax seeds! But flax seeds are edible by both humans and livestock (isn’t that what got me into this mess?). I might even have a few friends crazy enough to process the flax plants for fiber, although apparently if you let the plants mature for a good seed harvest, the fiber will be very coarse.

And most importantly, yes – your garden really does perform better with regular fertilizer. I know that should be obvious, but it took me eight years to really grok this.

Will I keep applying COF, despite the hassle? I think so, although maybe I will rename it to “Complete Organic Flax”!


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Foraged Forays, Week Ending 07/01/2018

I’ve thought long and hard about how to articulate why I enjoy foraging, and why I think it’s important to share information about foraging with folks who stumble across my blog. I couldn’t think of just one singular reason! For this week’s foraging series post, here are the reasons why I forage. They fall under four main categories: financial, environmental, physical and mental.

Financial

  • It’s free. Given the economic instability of our era, knowing where to find and how to use free food is a valuable skill that should be developed before one’s sustenance depends on it.
  • No gardening expenses. Homegrown food can cost as much or more than store bought (although it’s still totally worth it), due to fertilizer, compost, soil amendments, seeds, or starter plants, mulch, pots, wood for raised beds, irrigation hoses, gardening tools, etc, etc. Wild plants don’t need all that extra fuss. (Although they might not mind a nice organic fertilizer occasionally.)
  • No weeding expenses. Instead of paying for costly lawn treatments,
  • Extra income. Some foragers actually earn money selling their finds to local restaurants or at farmers markets – ramps, morels, and stinging nettles come to mind. No, I haven’t reached that stage in my foraging career. Yet!

Environmental

  • Zero food miles – no fossil fuels burned to ship the food cross country and keep it chilled in the grocery store. (OK, obviously if you drive to where you forage, there are some food miles and fossil fuels consumed, but not on the scale of industrial food production. Read Omnivore’s Dilemma sometime – it is a real eye-opener.)
  • No added chemical fertilizers or pesticides. I say “added” because almost everything is contaminated by industrial agricultural production somehow.
  • Understanding the local ecosystem. Including (and maybe most importantly) where humans fit.
  • Sensitivity to the seasons. This includes spotting clues for garden timing, for example when wild greens, lettuce, and carrots (aka Queen Anne’s lace) have similar growing conditions and timing as their cultivated counterparts.

Physical

  • Food gathered at peak of ripeness and nutritional value (and flavor). Grocery store food – even farmer’s market food – has to be picked ahead of time to bring to market. The ripest produce would spoil too quickly. Foraged food can be picked the day you plan to eat it. (Although if you wait even a day too long, it may be gone!)
  • Diversity of plant matter consumed. The majority of Americans today have a staggeringly simplistic diet with a correspondingly narrow range of nutrients.
  • Exercise. Walking and hiking and digging for wild food is excellent free physical activity, and a great way to enjoy a natural setting in lieu of artificial lights, climate control and constantly glowing blue screens.
  • I also believe – though I cannot yet prove – that human nutritional needs are adapted to the cycle of available plant food. Sugars from fruits in the summer; more sugary fruits, fatty nuts and starchy tubers in the fall; more tubers and preserved nuts and fruits through the winter; and nutrient-dense greens in the spring to recover from the sparser diet available during the winter.

Mental

  • Humility in the face of nature’s bounty. It blows my mind how much food is all around us, but no one ever taught us to see it. For generations we grew up believing food came from these hyper-air conditioned, fluorescent-lighted caverns with aisles of boxes and cans and bags, with one token section for fresh fruits and vegetables. In recent years, farmers markets and co-ops have improved this situation, but we still largely depend on other people, on “experts” to feed ourselves and our families.
  • Brain calisthenics. I am constantly learning to new identify local species, and learning more about botany as a whole.
  • The thrill of the hunt. Granted, what I discover is almost never what I am looking for, but it’s thrilling none the less.
  • Constantly new experiences. Both in the wild and at the dinner table. Foraging is always an adventure! Especially when, as mentioned above, what I find isn’t what I set out to locate, and suddenly dinner plans radically change.
  • Adaptability. Like when dinner plans radically change.
  • Great conversation topic at cocktail parties & and a surefire way to embarrass my kids. Guaranteed. Especially in public. It’s awesome.