In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 8/19/2018

You guys, I found BUTTERNUT! … Maybe!

No, not a feral squash … or even an invasive domesticated squash overtaking the rest of my garden. (I already knew where that was!)

When butternut squash goes rogue

When butternut squash goes rogue

Nope, what I found was evidence of a butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) when I picked up a funny shaped nut. I’d assumed I had a better chance of finding morels than butternut trees, thanks to a fungal disease (cleverly called ‘butternut canker’) which had largely decimated the wild population. The Maryland Biodiversity Project even categorizes butternut trees as “state rare”.

But I found one, less than a mile from my house. And then a week later, I located another possible butternut near a friend’s house in Washington county. One of the key characteristics is the shape of the nut. The hull has a oblong, almost football shape. The nut inside has a prominent beak on one side.

Possible butternut

Possible butternut

Butternuts are cousins to the more prevalent black walnut (Juglans nigra). I haven’t foraged black walnuts because they feature thick, black-staining hulls and difficult-to-crack shells. Accumulating enough nutmeat for a recipe or snacking takes significant time and effort. Additionally, the flavor of black walnut does not appeal to everyone. You can sometimes find black walnuts in grocery stores, if you want to taste them to decide if they are worth the effort. (Or Amazon.com. Everything is on Amazon.)

(Immature black walnuts can also be used to make a liqueur called nocino, but I’ve already missed the window for this particular experiment.)

Butternuts, by contrast, are described as having delicious nutmeats…buttery flavored, even. I haven’t tried it yet because the butternut-shaped-nut had a cracked hull, so the nut inside was probably compromised.

Possible Butternut Tree

Possible Butternut Tree

I couldn’t tell the potential butternut tree from surrounding black walnut trees. Also I have struggled to tell black walnuts (or butternuts) from staghorn sumac or tree of heaven (especially at a distance). They all have  compound leaves with pointy, lance-shaped leaflets. Staghorn sumac tends to be shorter (35 ft), and up close the leaves have serrated margins. For females, the red drupes are a dead giveaway. Tree of heaven is more problematic, because the trees can grow as tall as black walnut (80 ft). But if you get close (i.e., not gazing at trees flying by as you hurtle down the interstate), the bark is a smooth light gray versus the deep furrows of walnut bark.

In the summer though, you know for sure if you have a black walnut if you spot the round green shapes of future nuts in the trees.

Walnut Leaves and Nuts

Walnut Leaves and Nuts

To complicate butternut identification, there are also hybrid butternuts, which the nuts shown below may have been. Note their less pointy shape than the nut in the first picture.  It can be hard to tell the hybrids from the full butternuts, but hopefully either will be just as tasty.

Possible butternuts

Possible butternuts

Apparently some years butternuts produce a good crop, and some years there is no crop at all. I’ll definitely be back to check on both trees later this year to harvest the actual nuts.

Everyone recommends wearing gloves or plastic bags over your hands when removing the hulls to prevent staining, unless “diseased” is the look you are trying for. I have read suggestions for stomping the nuts, or driving over them with cars.  You can also use a wooden board with a hole in it, and a mallet or second board to force the nut through hole, scraping off the hull. Other sources recommend just using a sharp knife to peel away the husks. (Carefully, of course!)

The nuts are also very difficult to crack.  Regular nutcrackers aren’t up to the task. One book recommended pouring boiling water over the nuts, letting them stand for 15 minutes and then trying to crack the shells with a hammer tap. Butternuts can be eaten right away, unlike black walnuts which should be allowed to fully dry and ripen in their shells for several weeks or months.

Will all the work – identifying, harvesting, hulling, shelling, and finally using the nuts – be worth it? Stay tuned! We’ll find out!


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Wild Edible World, Week Ending 8/12/2018

This week, I had planned to post about using “milkweed cheese”. Many milkweed seedpods are still at the perfect stage for harvesting both to eat as a vegetable, and to collect the creamy white silk from inside. However, while researching recipes I realized I had nothing to add beyond what Alan Bergo has already covered on his Forager Chef site. Except when harvesting, please mind the monarchs!

A fierce monarch caterpillar devouring its helpless prey, a milkweed seedpod

A fierce monarch caterpillar devouring its helpless prey, a milkweed seedpod

Instead, in light of the recent fate of a foraging cookbook recalled over possibly toxic ingredients, I decided to add my own “guide to safe foraging” page on this site. I’d meant to do so for a while. Now each time I post about foraging safety, I can link to that page, rather than boring you to tears with the same dire warnings over and over and over again.

I also recently updated this blog’s About page … I hadn’t touched it since 2009, and a lot has changed in nine years!


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Backyard Foraging, Week Ending 8/5/2018

Today’s post showcases four weeds I haven’t covered previously, or only in passing. I’m also trying to include more recipes to help bridge the gap from “Hey, you can eat this stuff!” to successfully incorporating wild food into meals.

Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) is a sprawling annual with edible stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. The easiest way to gather them is to bend along the stem, starting either near the ground or from the tip. Where the stem easily snaps off (like with asparagus) the rest of the plant to the tip is tender to eat. Snapping off the ends allows the plant to continue to grow, so a patch of asiatic dayflower can produce food for months.

asiatic_dayflower_hedge

Asiatic dayflower plants have been prominent in my yard for many weeks now, but the flowers are now on display so they are much more photogenic! Each flower only sticks around for a day, hence the name “dayflower”.

Asiatic Dayflower Flower

Asiatic Dayflower Flower

Asiatic dayflower can be eaten raw, but I prefer to steam or lightly sautee the greens. They can also be served creamed. In fact, I thought I had posted previously cooking asiatic dayflower stems, but can’t seem to locate it now.

Lady’s thumb (Persicaria maculosa), also sometimes called redshank, allegedly earned the name because the leaves feature a dark thumb-print-like shape on each leaf. I have encountered this marking only occasionally, but there is no mistaking the pink column of flowers on this backyard weed.

Lady’s thumb is one of those weeds people just seem to hate, despite its pretty pink flowers. I saw some growing in a friend’s yard, and I complimented her on it.  “That weed?” she replied. “I hate it.” When I pointed out it was edible, her terse response was, “Don’t care, I still hate it.”

Lady's Thumb Flower and Leaves

Lady’s Thumb Flower and Leaves

The flowers and most tender leaves can be used raw in salads; the leaves can also be cooked for a spinach substitute. I will admit I have tried the leaves raw, and found them bland and uninteresting. Maybe they could be used as a filler if you were short on other greens for a recipe.

Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) provides both edible greens as well as seeds. According to Samuel Thayer, amaranth leaves are among the most widely eaten cooked greens in the world. But the seeds are trendy (because they are gluten free, and gluten free is trendy) so you are more likely to encounter seeds in recipes and grocery stores. Amaranth seeds are sometimes marketed as “grains” because they have a similar nutritional profile and can be cooked in a similar fashion. It’s sometimes called a “pseudocereal”. Wild amaranth seeds are brown or black, as opposed to the cream colored seeds in the grocery store.

Amaranth Flowers

Amaranth Flowers

This is the same wild amaranth plant from last week’s post, by the way. It is now as tall as me – almost five and a half feet.

While the amaranth leaves can be eaten raw, the texture improves with cooking. It can be cooked in any recipe that calls for spinach or kale. One option is stir fry. I am contemplating “amaranth chips”, since baking kale into chips is one of the few ways my kids willingly eat greens. Collect the most tender leaves from the tips of the plant. I haven’t tried amaranth greens yet because I’ve been blessed with so much lamb’s quarter to enjoy. (Lamb’s quarter is also known as pigweed, just to keep it confusing. I recently removed my six foot tall lamb’s quarter tree because I needed the bed for fall vegetable planting … RIP lamb’s quarter tree. You were a wonderful weed.)

RIP Lamb's Quarter "Tree"

RIP Lamb’s Quarter “Tree”

Ground cherry (Physalis spp), also known as husk cherry, is a shy, unassuming plant closely related to tomatillos. You can buy ground cherry seeds from specialty company companies that focus on heirloom and heritage plants.

Ground Cherry Flower and Leaves

Ground Cherry Flower and Leaves

The berries are protected by a papery sheath, which is one of the easiest ways to identify the plant. The wild ground cherries have fruit which is much smaller than their domesticated counterparts. The fruit will ripen late summer at the earliest. The husk dries and turns brown, and the fruit turns yellow;. sometimes the fruit falls to the ground with its husk before it ripens.

Ground Cherry Husks

Ground Cherry Husks

I haven’t tried ground cherries yet because I missed the harvest window last year. According to some descriptions they are both sweet and tart, with an almost pineapple-y flavor. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and used in both sweet and savory dishes. I will probably go with something simple when mine are finally ready… eventually… much later this year… like this husk cherry and goat cheese salad.

Last but not least: an update on a previous foraging fail. Remember a month ago when I lamented the untimely end of “my” milkweed patch? Looks like the milkweed has the last laugh!

Milkweed - The Resurgence

Milkweed – The Resurgence

Unfortunately, this late in the year I doubt we’ll see flowers or seeds on these plants. However, they are at a good height (again) to use for shoots (minus the huge leaves, of course), lightly steamed or sauteed like you might cook asparagus. Or wrapped in pancetta and roasted at 400 degrees for 20 or so minutes … ok, now I am hungry!


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 7/22/2018

Fruit continues to take center stage in the foraging world as summer progresses. Here are some of the fruitful edibles to find in the central Maryland area in late July.

Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius): If you blinked, you missed the wineberry harvest. This photo was taken a few weeks ago when they were starting to turn ripe. Wineberries all ripen around the same time, usually within approximately two weeks.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

As you can see in the photo, wineberries do have “leaves of three” like poison ivy, but the edges of the leaves are toothed, while poison ivy has smooth leaf edges. Additionally, wineberry  stems are prickly like other members of the Rubus family. Wineberry fruit is  especially soft, so use a rigid container when collecting them to make sure they don’t get squished. Assuming you don’t eat them all straight off the cane!

Blackberries (Rubus spp.): Unlike wineberries, blackberries ripen over multiple weeks, providing a longer harvest. Unfortunately, the recent dry weather has taken a toll on the fruit, which is undersized and unpleasant to eat because there is less flesh compared to the size of the seed. Pick only the plumpest berries, and watch out for the thorns!

Blackberries

Blackberries

Rain is predicted for most of this week, which could be good or bad. The fruit may be larger; however, the berries could end up with a thin, weak flavor, depending on how mature they were when the rain hit.

Grapes (Vitus spp.): Grape vines cover everything wild around here. (You can see their cameo in the wineberry photo if you look at the lower right.) Which would be great if I wanted to make stuffed grape leaves – but I have struggled to find actual fruit. Maybe the erratic spring weather contributed to the problem, or perhaps wild grapes are always this scarce. Or non-human critter might enjoy them best at this sour stage. They are still too small to use even for verjuice, so I need to keep checking back as the weeks and months pass.

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

Rosehips (Rosa spp): Rosehips are the fruit of roses. By now they have set, but (like grapes) aren’t yet ready for harvest. They won’t be ripe until they turn red, much later this year. But now is a fine time to start locating them. Since wild roses grow in similar environments as blackberries, you may find them without any extra effort.

Wild Rosehips

Wild Rosehips

The local crop of rosehips may be small because Japanese beetles love, love, love eating the flowers which prevents the fertilization necessary for the fruit to set.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): Sumac berries – called drupes – only appear on female plants. The drupes are covered with a sour coating which makes a lemonade-like drink once soaked in water. For weeks I have seen staghorn sumac along heavily traveled interstates, but failed to find any in a safer location for foraging. I finally found one, which was even short enough that I could reach a few clusters of berries. I harvested them just as the rain drops started to fall yesterday. Rain washes away the coating, reducing the sour flavor.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The drupes can also be dried to make the Middle Eastern seasoning known as sumac, although Rhus coriaria is usually the plant used rather than Rhus typhina.  Also note that despite the similar name, this is NOT the same as poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. If it has white berries, it is NOT staghorn sumac; don NOT eat it.

Mystery Fruit: I don’t really know what this is! It could be a variety of cherry, or maybe a crabapple. (I am mildly embarrassed that I don’t know for sure!) Later this year, once the fruit is more fully developed, I should be able to tell for sure. Am I going to eat the fruit before I figure it out? Of course not! Rule number of foraging: if you don’t know ONE HUNDRED PERCENT what it is, don’t eat it!

Mystery Fruit

Mystery Fruit

Bonus edible! The curious shapes hanging from this shrub caught my eye on a recent trip into the woods. Apparently, this is American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Trifolia means three leaved – again, like poison ivy – so I was very careful leaning in for this photo…just in case!

American Bladdernut

American Bladdernut

You can see why it is called “bladdernut”. “Bladder” is the only term I can think of to describe the seedpods. The seeds inside are edible when ripe, so I will be visiting again later this fall to try for myself.

Despite the bounty surrounding us, remember to take care of yourself while foraging, especially during the hot, humid summer weather. Stay hydrated, watch out for poison ivy, and always check for ticks!


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Foraging Fail, Week Ending 07/08/18

This is where the milkweed grew.

Here the milkweed grew

Here the milkweed grew

The milkweed that fed the monarch butterfly caterpillars.

The milkweed that was blooming. The milkweed, a few of whose flowers I was going to transform into liqueur.

The milkweed that later would have produced seedpods to feed my family – okay, maybe just for one meal (that my kids would have hated) – and then spawned future generations of milkweed.

All gone. Sigh.


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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.