In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Flavorful Foraging, Week Ending 5/26/2019

There’s so much going on wild-food-wise right now in Maryland! I could fill this blog with pages and pages of photos of the amazing bounty out there, in the woods and in the fields.

However, I am realizing more and more that knowing “what” is edible is useless if you don’t know what to actually do with it. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, not only can you eat garlic mustard, but you really should eat it to remove this exotic invasive species from delicate native ecosystems.”  But what does one do with this knowledge? Not much, without knowing how to eat garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

A lot of foraging books toss out suggestions, but few actually provide recipes. Garlic mustard pesto gets mentioned frequently, so I decided to give it a try.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Luckily the internet provides recipes that the books don’t. I used the recipe here as my starting point, substituting toasted hazelnuts for the walnuts since that is what I had. Plus, I am actually growing hazelnut trees (although I still have years to wait before they produce nuts) and I like to adapt recipes to use as much of my own harvest as possible.

Also, rather than using leaves from the second year stalks as in the original receipt, I used first year plants.

Garlic Mustard Pesto In Progress

Garlic Mustard Pesto in Progress

Wait, haven’t I written previously that first year garlic mustard isn’t worth eating?

One key to harvesting garlic mustard greens is timing. In Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer shares the secret: the “meristem”. The meristem is the part of any plant where growth occurs. Because it is growing, the meristem is often lighter colored, softer, and milder flavored compared to established parts of the plant. In other words, it’s the most edible part.

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Delicate, tender garlic mustard in the spring

Which explains why first year garlic mustard leaves are unpalatable in fall – they have finished growing for the season, and the leaves are tough and bitter. In spring, however, new first year plants are coming up, with young tender leaves that are much more enjoyable. To some people anyway. Others will find garlic mustard to be too intense no matter how early you harvest it!

Personally, I found the garlic mustard pesto a delightful change from the typical basil-based version. Although if you are serving it to guests, you should warn them to sample a small amount before diving in!

Three more notes:

  1. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but the flavor is still too pungent for your taste buds, next time substitute 1 cup of the leaves for a milder-flavored green. In the photo above, you can see young lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) in the lower left corner. That’s a great candidate, and adds a nutritional boost as well. Spinach would also work. I wouldn’t recommend another plant with a strong flavor – like basil, for instance – because it could clash with the flavor of the garlic mustard rather than simply taming it.
  2. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but just … you know … never eat crackers or toast to put the pesto on, blend two parts pesto to one part white wine vinegar. Poof! Instant pesto vinaigrette to enjoy on a salad.
  3. If you really want to enjoy garlic mustard pesto but don’t seem to eat very much at a time, you can always freeze the leftovers for later.


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Garlic Mustard Revisited, Week Ending 4/28/2019

Almost two months ago, I shared my dilemma about my local colony of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola). In short, I was debating whether to be ecologically conscientious and remove this invasive biennial from my yard, or let it continue to grow so I could, well, eat it.

Garlic mustard flourishes in part shade, or full shade, or full sun, or anywhere it possibly can. It moves into the local ecosystem and disrupts native species which have more particular growing requirements. Disturbed areas and boundaries are among garlic mustard’s favorite habitats, but it grows equally well in the forest understory.

Garlic mustard spreading through the forest understory

Garlic mustard spreading through the forest understory

In my immediate area, the second year garlic mustard plants have just reached the optimal eating stage. I have seen plenty of plants on roadsides which were ahead of mine. For whatever reason, mine were just … a touch slow.

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive about harvesting and eating garlic mustard. I’d previously only sampled the first year leaves, in the fall and winter. Let’s just say, those fell into the “edible but not particularly tasty” category, like hairy bittercress. I have heard the first-year leaves make good pesto, but no one in my family eats pesto regularly so I didn’t bother trying.

A second year garlic mustard plant, almost ready to harvest

A second year garlic mustard plant, almost ready to harvest

I’m pleased to report that the second year flowering stalks were actually pretty tasty, if you happen to like cooked greens. They were milder in flavor than I was expecting, given how pungent the first-year leaves are. Closer to broccoli rabe than to dandelion or other wild greens.

I harvested them by cutting them off at the base. Once inside, I snapped off the tough and woody bottoms of the stems. There seems to be a natural breaking point, like with asparagus stalks. Although truth be told, I experienced a few bites that were especially high in, um, insoluble fiber. That’s extra healthy for your gut, right?

After I trimmed and washed the stalks, I roughly chopped them, then boiled them in water for just three minutes. If you were cooking pasta, you could add the greens into the boiling water near the end, and cook them that way. I drained mine, and then added them to a pan of chopped chicken sausage and minced field garlic. Once everything seemed hot and thoroughly mixed, I added a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. I would have added pine nuts too, but didn’t have any on hand.

Garlic mustard with chicken sausage and Parmesan cheese

Garlic mustard with chicken sausage and Parmesan cheese

The dish was delicious. My kids might have even tried it, if they hadn’t seen me harvesting them and storing the stalks in a container water in the fridge until I had enough for a meal. Sigh.

I could see using garlic mustard in any recipe that calls for spinach, cooked kale, or other greens – creamed, sauteed with bacon, etc. I have not yet tried garlic mustard without boiling it first, so stay tuned for information on that front.


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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 2/3/2019

(Sorry, Mr. Pollan, I couldn’t resist!)

When I started foraging a few years ago, I never imagined I would be in the crux of a conservation crisis.

I just thought it was cool that humans are surrounded by food. Free food. Natural food. Food that has never shivered in refrigerated tractor trailers; food that has not been yanked from its natural habitat to be shipped around the world to a consumer who knows (and cares) nothing of its homeland; food that wasn’t forced to grow under the frequent rain of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer; food that remains untouched by plastic wrap and unlit by fluorescent bulbs.

Unfortunately, some of that food is unwelcome and unwanted.

Meet the much maligned focus of this week’s winter foraging spotlight: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola).

First year garlic mustard basal rosette

First year garlic mustard basal rosette. (Note the leaf in the foreground is slightly frost-damaged but the rest are fine.)

Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows under tree-lined property edges and in the understory of mature forests. It especially loves disturbed ground (like many invasive species). It has a two-year lifecycle, that is to say it is a biennial, surviving the cold of winter as a basal rosette (a group of leaves that spread out in a circle and stay close to the ground), and then producing flower stalks in its second year. It produces tiny, easily dispersed seeds like many members of the mustard family. But in addition to its cold and shade tolerance, and its prolific seed production, garlic mustard is also allelopathic. That is to say, its roots exudes chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants near by.

Garlic mustard is bad news, from an environmental and ecological perspective.

But garlic mustard is edible. Some people like to use the first year leaves as a seasoning, although others say it’s too bitter and strong. The second year shoots, young leaves, and flower buds are apparently its tastiest stage when enjoyed as a spring vegetable. The seed pods and seeds can be eaten as well, although by that time, garlic mustard is already well on its way to invading yet patch of soil.

But any plant conservationist (and a LOT of websites) will tell you to pull garlic mustard up by the root as soon as you see it.

But if you do that to the first year plant, you won’t get to dine on the flowering stalks the second year.

On the other hand, if you pull up that first year plant, apparently the roots are edible too, with a flavor similar to horseradish.

(But don’t try this when the ground has been frozen – like recently in central Maryland – because the leaves will break off leaving the roots thoroughly stuck in the soil.)

What’s an environmentally conscious forager to do?

… yeah, I’m gonna eat those weeds. Later. In mid-spring when the flowering stalks are at their best. As long as I pull them and eat them before they can go to seed, I think it will be OK. I hope, anyway!

In order to harvest the young flowering stalks in spring, one first needs to know how to recognize the first year plants. First year garlic mustard leaves are very distinctly shaped, often described as kidney-like as they curve back around the stem.

The following photo shows a garlic mustard leaf surrounded by chickweed (Stellaria media) and purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), two other winter-hardy wild edibles. (I guess one single garlic mustard plant can’t exude enough chemicals to fend off the other weeds!) The garlic mustard and dead nettle look similar but can be distinguished with a few details. Note how they are both roughly circular, but the garlic mustard leaf (upper right) curves back around the stem unlike the dead nettle leaf (lower left). Purple dead nettle leaves also grow from a stem, rather than a basal rosette.

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

If you harbor lingering doubts, you can tell the difference by touch or smell. Purple dead nettle has the characteristic square stem of members of the mint family, and the leaves are covered with soft hairs as opposed to the smooth leaves of garlic mustard. Additionally, when garlic mustard leaves are crushed they smell pungent, like, well, garlic and mustard. Purple dead nettle leaves by contrast do not have any strong, distinctive aroma. (Unless “green” counts as a smell.)

First year garlic mustard leaves are also similar in shape to common mallow (Malva neglecta).

Common mallow in the winter

Common mallow in the winter

However common mallow leaves are much smaller overall, and grow from a stem rather than from a single, central point in the ground.  Also, while both mallow and garlic mustard leaves have toothed margins, those of mallow are sharper versus the rounder margins of garlic mustard.

Second year garlic mustard plants have more elongated, almost triangular-shaped leaves. I don’t have any pictures yet… hopefully I will be able to share those photos (and recipes) with you later this year!


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 11/25/2018

I originally planned to skip this week’s post. (I’ll spare you the list of excuses… so when I need them in the future they will sound fresh and new!)

But I realized today that I was wrong last week, when I said the foraging season was drawing to a close. It’s not ending, merely changing.

Check out this patch of wild salad greens I found this morning!

Fall Salad Garden

Fall Salad Garden

Top notch chickweed and garlic mustard, enough to last me well into the winter. Let the foraging continue!


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Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8

Not that kind of weed, people! Wrong blog!

I’m starting a new series to highlight what is growing wild and edible in the piedmont Maryland region. “Weed Walk” will feature backyard plants many people will recognize; “Forage Finds” by contrast, will go off the beaten path.

As always, please be 100% sure of your identification before eating something you’ve foraged! Even if you are confident in your harvest, introduce wild foods slowly to your domesticated digestive system.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) in a shady spot in my yard. Note the line of teeth on the underside of the leaf’s rib.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa)

Wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa)

 

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Wild Lettuce – Underside of Leaf Rib

 

Violet (Viola papilionacea). Pleasant mild leaves – a great salad addition. The flowers are edible too. Some people (not me) dip the flowers in egg whites and then sugar as an edible cake decoration. I was very sad when working on this post to find numerous websites advocating ways to eliminate this “difficult to control weed”. I love violets in my yard.

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Violet (Viola papilionacea)

First year leaves of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Not only invasive, but downright dangerous. Do your ecosystem a favor by pulling these up, even if you don’t intend to dine on them.

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Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Chickweed (Stellaria media). Literally my favorite wild edible, especially this time of year. So crunchy and juicy in salads.

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Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella). Adds a sour tang to dishes. Most foraging resources warn of its high concentrations of oxalic acid so I will as well. But then, so does rhubarb and it does not feature disclaimers in the produce section of supermarkets. Double standard much?

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Field garlic (Allium oleraceum). I minced the field garlic and sheep sorrel and mixed both with butter to baste a chicken I roasted for dinner.

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Field Garlic (Allium oleraceum)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). I’ve never actually eaten this, because most accounts suggest it is bland and boring. My tastebuds have better things to do.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). I haven’t eaten this either because I’m miffed it’s not the much more famous and charismatic stinging nettle.

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Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Pretty sure this is wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis). (So of course I haven’t eaten any. Right? Gotta follow my own rules.)

Wild Mustard (Sinapis arvensis)

Wild Mustard (Sinapis arvensis)

An extremely cheerful yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) . Most of the ones I found were too diminutive to bother with. Unfortunately only this one was worthy to eat, and one plant is not enough to bother with.

Upland Cress (Barbarea verna)

Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), the king of the jungle… er, yard. This is the best time of year to enjoy the leaves raw; soon they will need extra prep to cope with the bitter flavor.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)