In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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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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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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Shut Up and Eat Your Weeds

Well, I’m not dead so I am thrilled to announce: I ate weeds and they didn’t kill me.

Specifically, I harvested milkweed flower buds to serve with dinner last night. Rather than just posting photos of weeds I “could” eat, I decided it was time to put my wildflowers where my mouth is. Um. Literally.

Milkweed Flower Buds

Milkweed Flower Buds

I found a milkweed patch that seemed safe-ish for foraging. Close to a road, but a small one which only gets local traffic; near a farmer’s field, but it hadn’t been sprayed in months. It only took two adults 15 minutes to harvest enough for a side dish. (Imagine one gallon-sized freezer bag full).

Note: if you try this, you have to choose whether to pluck the flower buds off with your fingers, or use snips. The fingers are faster, but you get sticky white sap all over your hands. Also, don’t pick all the flower buds. Take only one or two per plant, and not every plant. Leave enough for flowers and seed pods later, plus some for the plant to propagate next year’s crop. This is especially important given the dependency monarch butterflies have on common milkweed for their life cycle.

Remember, as you read the following – I am no foraging expert. Perform your own research and use all due prudence if and when you decide to try wild food. Some guides recommend boiling milkweed-anything in several changes of water. In my world, boiling most vegetables even once produces inedible mush … which defeats the purpose of harvesting wild edibles in the first place!

I washed the flower buds thoroughly. As you can see in the photo below, the white milky sap did not come off.

Milkweed flower buds, washed and ready to cook

Milkweed flower buds, washed and ready to cook

I steamed the flower buds in a steamer basket over simmering water with a dash of lemon juice. I started checking tenderness around 10 minutes; they probably cooked for 15 minutes overall. I think they cooked longer than really necessary. Once I removed them from the heat, I dressed them with melted butter mixed with lemon juice to taste.

Milkweed steaming in a pot

Milkweed steaming in a pot

Will I die because I didn’t actually boil the buds? It was time for the true test.

I am here to tell you, I ate steamed milkweed flower buds, and lived to tell the tale.

The flavor is mild and sweet, though not as sweet as peas. The buds were very tender (like I said, I probably overcooked them). They seemed remarkably, well, vegetable-like, with not a single hint of bitter flavor.

Milkweed. It's what's for dinner.

Milkweed. It’s what’s for dinner.

The kids’ reactions were predictable. “Ew, what’s that?”

I replied, “They’re milkweed flower buds. You know, unopened flowers? Like broccoli.”

“Why can’t we just eat broccoli?”

I might’ve been frustrated at this point. “Because I can never get broccoli to grow nice in my garden no matter how much work I put into it, and milkweed grows whether I do anything or not. Shut up and eat your weeds!”

I would love to say we all lived happily ever after. At least no one died from eating weeds (although you would’ve wondered, watching the faces my kids made…but that’s just what they do when they eat veggies.)


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Eats Shoots and Leaves (or Not), Week Ending May 13

Midspring in the mid-Atlantic. Asparagus is popping up in my garden with increasing frequency. A variety of wild edibles are producing shoots now as well.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) went from nowhere-to-be-seen to almost-too-large-to-eat  in the space of four days!
Milkweed Shoot

Milkweed Shoot

Unfortuantely at this tender, tasty stage, milkweed shoots look dangerously similar to dogbane (Apocynum cannibum) which is toxic. Both plants start the season as unbranched stalks with opposite, oval shaped leaves, and both ooze milky sap from hollow stems if you snap them off. As the plants mature, dogbane develops branched stems whereas milkweed remains a single straight stalk. But by then, they are too old to eat as shoots.
Dogbane Shoot

Dogbane Shoot – Don’t Eat This

Dogbane tends to be thinner and more red-tinged, however I would not rely on these traits to safely distinguish it from milkweed. It is especially difficult to tell if you don’t have a sample of each side by side for comparison. However, if you get reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally close to the stem on milkweed, you may spot the super fine hairs on it. One blogger suggested using a jeweler’s loupe to see them – that’s how tiny they are. (As fine as frog fur, perhaps?) I tried to photograph the hairs with “meh” results. Trust me, though. If you can’t see the hairs, or aren’t sure if you can see the hairs, just give it a pass. Milkweed flower buds and immature seed pods are both edible as well, so if it does turn out to be milkweed you can still benefit from the plant later in the year.
Milkweed Stalk Close Up

Can you see the super fine hairs on this milkweed stalk?

If you were wondering, I did not eat the milkweed shoots I found. I only located two in a “safe foraging” zone (the safest – my backyard), and I am saving them both for flower buds and seed pods. If you do find milkweed shoots, apparently the best way to cook them is by boiling for 15 minutes. If I get a chance to try this, I will let you know how it turns out! (Fifteen minutes seems like a really long time to me…)
Another plant is producing shoots throughout my yard: pokeweed (Phytolacca americana).  Pokweed is edible before it starts turning magenta colored, at which point it becomes toxic. As you can see in this photo, all my pokeweed shoots, even the youngest ones in the background, have a LOT of magenta already.
Pokeweed Shoots

Pokeweed Shoots

In other words, I haven’t tried eating pokeweed either. If I can find some shoots where the pinkish color is limited to the bottom of the stem, I will cut off the pokeweed above that location and give it a try. Stay tuned!
Bramble shoots (Rubus spp.) are allegedly edible as well. I say “allegedly” because frankly, I have never been hungry enough to fight the prickles for the food underneath. Neither for wild blackberries that grow nearby, nor my own everbearing raspberries when they need to be pruned back.

Blackberry Shoots

Blackberry Shoots

In addition to my reluctance to fight the prickles, these blackberry shoots are too close to poison ivy for my comfort (you cans see the “leaves of three” clinging to the tree in the background).
Raspberry Shoot

A Prickly Raspberry Shoot

Yes friends, you read correctly. I’m surrounded by wild food this week, and didn’t eat any of it!