In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Hack(berries), Week Ending 12/9/2018

This was the year of hackberry fail.

Unlike my typical “foraging fail” experiences, this time it’s not my fault.

I know where the hackberry trees are, and successfully harvested fruit last December. But this year, almost every tree sports bare branches. I blame the late spring frost that also killed most of the wild cherry blossoms in our area.

The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a fairly, um, common tree in central Maryland. This tree is also known as the Northern hackberry. Southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata), or sugarberry, is closely related and produces sweeter fruit; unfortunately its range is further south so I cannot compare the two.

Hackberry trees are so common, in fact, I discovered a cluster of them growing in the wild portion of my yard earlier this summer.  While I was thrilled to find them, I was surprised to find they had no fruit. By summer, the fruit has normally set although not yet ripe. Then I realized – none of the hackberry trees on my typical routes had fruit. None.

Hackberry trees are (or should be) easy to spot in the winter, because the tiny berries cling to the branches long after the leaves have fallen. They can remain on the tree throughout the winter season, making the berries a valuable source of food when nothing else is available.

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry fruit is small, crunchy, and sweet. Most of the berry is the seed, which is eaten whole along with fruit. They have almost no moisture at all. The berries are very high in calories for their size, and contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. They are reported to get sweeter the further into winter they go. Most years, the challenge in gathering hackberry fruit is that the trees grow to 30 to 50 feet tall, leaving most of the berries out of human reach.

A Bowl of Hackberries

A Bowl of Hackberries

I finally located ONE singular young tree with berries a week ago, but the fruit tasted rancid rather than sweet.

Hackberry trees also stand out during other seasons due to the distinctive texture of their light gray bark. The best description for it is “warty”.

Warty Hackberry Bark

Warty Hackberry Bark

Even though I can’t talk celebrate a hackberry harvest this year, last year I harvested enough berries to experiment with hackberry milk. Here is the method I used:

Clean the berries, removing stems and any berries that look bad. (Wrinkly and oxidized are okay; rotten is not okay.) Measure twice as much water as berries by volume, and place together in a blender. A high powered blender would be best; my regular old kitchen model didn’t pulverize the fruit nearly as thoroughly as I would have liked. Strain out the solids. Depending on how fine the strainer is,  the milk can end up with the consistency of a thin liquid or a puree. Add 1 Tbs of maple syrup at a time, checking for taste. (This step is probably not needed for sugarberries.) The fluid and solids will tend to separate, so stir regularly as you enjoy your drink!

Mmmmm ... Hackberry Milk

Mmmmm … hackberry milk

You can also use hackberry milk in cooking, but I haven’t tried this yet. Hopefully next year I will get the chance!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/2/2018

I had great plans for this week’s post.

I wanted to cover winter tubers which are great for foraging this late in the year. Unfortunately here in the mid-Atlantic we suffered from yet more rain this week. (While California burns, and then turns to mudslides in the rain… Remind me again how climate change isn’t “really” a thing?)

But I digress. Since localized flooding is occurring, I cannot dig up the roots this week. Heck, I can’t even find the plants in all the mud and silt and runoff. So instead, I will talk about a strategy for dealing with foraging disappointment: instead of hunting for the forage, bringing the forage to the hunter.

Meet Thelma and Jeff, my new hazelnuts (Corylus americana)!

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

(Sorry the photo is so blurry – my smart phone struggles to focus on objects that small!)

They are both cultivars of the American hazelnut: Thelma is a “Theta”, and Jeff is a “Jefferson”.

While American hazelnuts grow wild in this area, I have failed to find any in central MD. The last time I saw wild hazelnuts was last year, in West Virginia, while property hunting.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but the plant’s features were so striking I took pictures for future identification.

Hazelnut Leaves

Hazelnut Leaves

Now I know what they were, and I’m very sorry not to have found any since.

Have I mentioned I LOVE hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly involucre

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly leafy coverings

Ultimately, I hope to use hazelnut flour to replace almond flour in my non-grain recipes, because I worry about the environmental impacts of almond cultivation in California, where most of the commercial almond crop is produced. Not so concerned that I would go back to eating grains, mind you, because of the severe pain they cause my body; but concerned enough to try growing or foraging my own replacement with a crop native to this area.

Unfortunately, hazelnuts can take several years to start producing, and Thelma and Jeff were much smaller than I thought they would be. I have never ordered a tree or shrub from a catalog before, and while I knew they wouldn’t be full grown it didn’t really dawn on me that they would be, well, almost invisible to the naked eye.

I mean, seriously. If I hadn’t told you there were hazelnut shrubs in the wire cages in this photo, you would never have noticed them there.

Two planted hazelnuts

Two planted hazelnuts

Since it will take a while (maybe a long while) for these little guys to produce, my days of hunting wild hazelnuts are not over yet! Maybe I’ll find something next year … 2019 or bust!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 11/4/2018

Along with the various nuts available for fall foraging, this is also the season for a native fruit, the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

American persimmons are usually dioecious meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees so both are necessary to produce fruit. Occasionally trees occur that are monoecious, but from what I have read this is particularly rare in persimmons. The best way to know you have found a female tree is to check in late fall, after the leaves have fallen but fruit still clings to the branches.

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

The fruit are much smaller than the Japanese varieties of persimmon you may find at the grocery store. They are also trickier to eat unless they are. Absolutely. Perfectly. Ripe. Woe be unto the tongue of anyone sampling a fruit even slightly underripe. The high level of tannins in the unripe fruit creates a mouth-drying experience that is intensely unpleasant. Unfortunately “ripe” for persimmons means “soft” and “easily damaged.”  Like pawpaws, the ripest fruit can be found on the ground, often leading to a muddy, thorny, or poison-ivy mess depending on the tree’s surroundings.

Unfortunately, the tree I found sits on a cluttered, overgrown roadside so it was challenging even reaching the tree, much less finding edible fruit on the ground surrounding it. We’ve had an abnormally wet year here in the mid-Atlantic, and the ground almost everywhere is mud.

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Additionally, persimmons take a long time to ripen. Between the timing, the mud, and the delicate nature of ripe persimmons, I only found a handful of usable fruit the last time I visited the tree. Luckily the temperature has only dropped below freezing a few nights this fall, so I hope more fruit will ripen before they get damaged by a major freeze. (There is a common belief that frost helps the fruit ripen. While it does help soften them, this is due to damage, not the fruit being any riper. It just happens that persimmons tend to ripen around the time when freezing temperatures occur more regularly.)

Ripe persimmons... aren't they lovely?

Ripe persimmons… aren’t they lovely?

Even though I only gathered a handful of persimmons, I still tried using my chinois to process the pulp since that was the technique described in Eating Appalachia. It went very slowly due to the size of the seeds compared to the fruit overall. Between removing the seeds and the peels, the seven persimmons pictured above only gave me about two tablespoons of puree! Once again, I am stymied by inadequate quantities of foraged harvest to actually use for anything.  All the recipes in Eating Appalachia, for instance, called for a cup or more of puree. Adding insult to injury, the puree still has a trace of the astringency which makes it unpleasant to eat straight.


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Don’t. Look. Down.

Just kidding.

If you are foraging for woodland nuts or mushrooms, you have no choice. You must look down. That’s where the good stuff is, whether fallen hickory nuts, or maitake growing at the base of an oak tree.

Shellbark Hickory Nuts

Shellbark Hickory Nuts on the Forest Floor

The problem is – particularly if you are new to foraging, or in unfamiliar woods – it is ridiculously easy to get disoriented when you stare at the ground while circling trees. This has happened to me twice (so far) this year. The first time occurred back in June while mushroom hunting (unsuccessfully) after a lengthy rainy spell. The second time was just last week, while collecting shellbark and mockernut hickory nuts (and as always hoping to stumble across edible fungus).

Luckily both times I was in confined wooded areas in an underdeveloped business park. Roads formed natural boundaries so I would have found my way out eventually. Unfortunately the first time, I was so turned around, I went away from the road and stumbled onto a cow pasture and homes I didn’t even know were in the area! It was surreal … and panic-inducing.

Both times I relied on my phone’s GPS to reorient myself and trek back to safety, but this isn’t a reliable solution – phone batteries die; signal might not penetrate remote areas; smart phones fall and break. So as a PSA, here are some approaches to not losing your way in the woods.


Bad idea: Bread crumbs.

Good idea: Know or learn basic orienteering, and carry a compass.

Bad idea: Counting on a smartphone app. For all the reasons mentioned above regarding phone GPSs.

Good idea: Take a friend into the woods, and take turns scouting for forage and staying stationary so at least one person remains oriented at a given time.

Bad idea: Relying on your memory. Unless major landmarks dot the landscape or you practically grew up in the woods, the forest will never look the same each time you visit. Trees fall, undergrowth gets overgrown, excessive rain creates ravines, etc.

Good idea: Use a walking stick stabbed into the ground, flagging tape tied to a branch, or other very visible object to mark the location where you start circling. Periodically re-orient yourself by glancing around for your man-made landmark.

Bad idea: Keep the road (or path or other forest boundary) always within sight, and resist the urge to wander further into the woods. Trust me… this won’t work. Whatever you are hunting is just … a little … farther … in …


There you go! A few more ways to stay safe in the woods while foraging. Personally, I plan to add a compass and brightly colored flagging tape to my kit for future forest adventures.

I will add these suggestions (the good ones, anyway!) to the Foraging Safety page as well.

 


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Fantastic Foraging, Week Ending 10/07/2018

Well, I meant to post more about black walnuts this week. Truly I did.

But Friday I walked through the woods, and was astounded to find there are still pawpaws lurking in the trees and on the ground.

“Common knowledge says” – aka, “everybody knows” – that pawpaw fruit is only available for a few weeks in the fall. When I found my first ripe ones on September 3, I figured I should take advantage of the harvest while I could! The last thing in the world I expected was to find plenty of pawpaws still available in early October.

Pawpaw Lingering in the October Canopy

Pawpaw Lingering in the October Canopy

And I couldn’t just leave them there. That would be wasteful. Especially knowing how many other foragers can’t find Asimina triloba because it doesn’t grow locally.

Problem was … I didn’t know what to do with them. I don’t normally eat a lot of fruit, due to the havoc even healthy sugars wreck on my body.  Since it’s so labor intensive to process pawpaws, the ideal recipe(s) would be fairly quick; use a minimum of heating and exposure to air for the pulp (since according to Eating Appalachia both treatments could bring out underlying bitter flavors in the fruit).

A plethora of pawpaws

A plethora of pawpaws

When using pawpaw, remember two things: the skin and seeds are not only inedible but toxic; and some people are intolerant to pawpaws so always try a small amount first before consuming significant amounts. (For more on foraging safety, please see this page.)

After doing some research on “pawpaw intolerance”, I decided to use an abundance of caution while preparing this batch. The seeds are surrounded by a membrane sack which can be split and peeled off using a fingernail or a knife. I didn’t know whether these sacks in fact contained the same toxin as the seeds, so I took extra care to avoid getting them in the pulp.

I also made sure no skin clung to the pulp. For firmer pawpaws, a vegetable peeler works well to remove the skin, as long as you make sure to get off all the green. Once they get riper and softer, a paring knife is more useful.

(Fun fact: allegedly the original consumer of pawpaws was the same as that of avocados, the giant sloth. I can imagine the gastro-intestinal distress caused by the seeds and skins of the pawpaw helping to ensure the seeds passed quickly through the beast’s guts, ending with them being deposited in a new location in the process.)

I tried two different recipe approaches (not recipes, per se) – a  liqueur recipe and an improvised freezer jam recipe. The liqueur involved soaking pawpaw puree in vodka for several weeks, then straining and adding simple syrup to sweeten (if necessary … pawpaws are pretty sweet on their own). No, I don’t know yet how I will use pawpaw liqueur. I’ll figure it out sometime after the liqueur has matured.

Pawpaw Liqueur

Pawpaw Liqueur

Next, I invented a freezer jam recipe, riffing on this water canned jam recipe. I would post the actual ingredients / method I used, except I was unhappy with the results. I heated the pawpaw puree and other ingredients only slightly to help the sugar dissolve into the rest of the ingredients. Unfortunately, I had the “clever” idea of substituting spicebush in place of the ginger, clover, allspice, and cinnamon. Not everyone likes the flavor of spicebush. In fact, no one in my family except me. Oops? Apparently I have a few containers of freezer jam to enjoy all by my lonesome!


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Tiny Steps

You might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a self-help junkie.
While I haven’t read any self-help books recently – so I can use the time spent “fixing” myself through exercises to write instead – I’m still getting emails from a few self-help guru-types, and well, they’re just emails so they don’t take that long to read. And they usually don’t include exercises. (I might’ve snuck in an audiobook or two, but shhhhhhhh don’t tell.)
Recently there was an email from Courtney at Be More with Less about toasting “tiny steps”. She discussed her own life experiences, the tiny steps she’s taken, and how long it took to transition from where she started to where she is today. I found the article particularly inspiring because so often it feels like we’re not doing enough. Like we’ll never get to wherever it is we want to be. Like you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, so why even bother? Particularly if your tiny steps are focused on transitioning to a lower energy lifestyle, consuming less, and eating more naturally. The overwhelming majority of your friends and neighbors aren’t bothering, and you find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Well, here is a list of tiny steps I’ve taken over the last year(ish). As I was trying to recall exactly how long it has been, I remembered … I have written about tiny steps before! It’s fascinating to see what I meant to do, compared to what I have actually done. This list may have to become an annual tradition!
Consuming stuff:
  • Using fewer single-use disposable items. We rarely use paper plates anymore; I reach for a sponge or cloth towel before a paper towel. Not always successful, but again, this is about tiny steps.
  • Not using plastic produce bags at the grocery store for fruits or veggies that have their own wrapping (sweet potatoes, lemons, limes, etc … although the cashiers hate finding that one extra lime in my order because they weren’t all bagged together)
  • Reusing single-use disposable items wherever feasible. For instance, when I do end up with plastic produce bags, I save them to store veggies I harvest from my garden. The plastic containers that hold deli meat get reused to pack lunches.
  • Compost what paper napkins and paper towels we do use, so at least they aren’t cluttering up landfills.
  • Started a ‘deep pantry’ so I can buy food staples when they are on sale, rather than when we run out.
  • Figuring out ways to use possessions we already have in new ways to solve problems, rather than immediately purchasing a solution.
  • Reading books through the library and free ebook services rather than purchasing books. Not always 100% successful … trying to buy used books when I simply can no longer resist.
  • Mending clothing, which says a lot because I hate mending.
  • Simplifying my wardrobe… I even tried Project 333, but it really didn’t work for me. (Sorry, Courtney!)
Still working on…
  • Phasing out paper napkins… even though they are teens, my kids are still really messy
  • Shopping less. I’ve tried, but the results are inconsistent at best.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Spending less time on my cell phone.
Eating:
  • Reducing food waste through ninja meal planning skillz.
  • Eating out less often, particularly at fast food restaurants.
  • Eating more produce from my own garden. I had wanted to join a CSA, but I can’t even properly use everything from my own garden before it rots. It didn’t seem responsible to buy even more produce I would struggle to use.
  • Incorporating more wild foods into our diet.
  • Eating more food in season and local to the area. I mean, there is nothing sadder than a grocery store tomato in Maryland in February!
  • Using more permaculture techniques (like intercropping and polyculture) in my garden to improve overall health and reduce the need for energy-intensive human interventions.
Still working on…
  • Preparing at least one vegetarian meal per week
  • Preserving or sharing garden produce rather than letting it go to waste
  • Finding innovative ways to feed my family whatever I can harvest yes, really, one more time. Ask my kids how sick they are of green beans!
  • Actually listening to my body and putting the fork down when I’m full even if it’s wasteful to stop, or so delicious I don’t want to.
Energy Consumption:
  • Sewed light-blocking curtains for the full-length windows flanking our front door. The summer sun streaming into the foyer made the whole house an oven, and the AC worked overtime. In the winter, cold radiated from them. The curtains let us control the temperature better on the main level of our house.
  • Installed a new attic fan and skylight. OK these were big steps, but we needed to redo our roof anyway so both attic fan and skylight got upgraded as well. The skylight has a remote control which allows you to open and close the curtain to allow or block the sun as needed, or open the skylight to allow hot air to escape. The attic fan has also kept the temperature upstairs more comfortable.
  • Trying to combine errands to use less gas… or better yet, just not go out!
Still working on…
  • Finding and completing more projects to insulate and weatherproof our home. For example, I bought foam to insulate hot water pipes after reading Green Wizardry last year, and they are still just piled all over our basement floor.
  • Line drying more clothing.
Friends and Family:
  • Making time to actually listen to the kids.
  • Spending time with friends and family, sharing a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant.
  • Sharing experiences instead of exchanging store-bought gifts.
Still working on…
  • Working to connect with other people locally who share my interests and values.
  • Learning to enjoy what the local environment has to offer rather than going on fancy vacations; there’s lots of local opportunities for hiking and camping, for instance.
I am sure to many people these tiny steps seem like self-deprivation and misery. (Although people who feel that way probably aren’t reading my blog in the first place.)
But putting one more plate in the dishwasher is no more work than throwing out the paper plate.
Cooking at home from scratch is more work, but allows my husband and I time together while we prep the meal; we enjoy the meal together as a family, and we’re all healthier as well.
Instead of shopping as a past-time with the kids, we’re actually having conversations and trying to cook together, while the money saved has helped us better cope with a few financial crises.
Hanging laundry up to dry is actually better for the clothes as well as the environment.
And even though I still abhor mending, it brings with it the quiet satisfaction of fixing a problem myself, and returning a loved garment to my wardrobe rather than scouring the malls or internet hoping I can find *and* afford its replacement.
Last but not least, I find joy in knowing that in even small ways I am cutting back on waste and reducing the degree of variation between my values and the life I’m actually living. And that’s worth more to me than any minor inconvenience which may be caused by these tiny steps.


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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.