In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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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.


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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.


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Weathering the Weather

This week, I should have been enjoying my first real strawberry harvest.

This year, one of my gardening goals was to take better care of my plants, making sure they had plenty of space and healthy dirt and fertilizer. Taking a more proactive approach to gardening, as it were, rather than always playing defense against my garden foes. For instance, aphids often infest my strawberry plants, but if the plants are healthy they can still produce decent fruit.

They loved the attention. My strawberries were healthier and happier and thrived.

Strawberry Bed

Strawberry Bed

And then the storms and rain hit last week. Tuesday night, the hail drummed our house for 45 minutes. The storm Tuesday night resulted in local waterways flooding, and Catoctin Creek literally washed away parts of the road I live on. (Luckily, we live further uphill so weren’t impacted by the flooding.) The streets of downtown Frederick, MD gushed with water.

My strawberry crop is, in a word, ruined.

Sad Strawberry Mush

Sad Strawberry Mush

In a brief break in the rain yesterday, I cleaned out as much of the damaged, diseased, and rotting fruit as I could. Removed leaves clinging to broken stems. Even plucked off unripe fruit that was already showing water spots. (PSA: half rotten mushy strawberries may be the grossest things to touch. Ever.)

I shouldn’t complain, right? My livelihood doesn’t depend on these berries; my family won’t starve as a result of a lost crop. And many people suffered much worse as a result of the weather.

But it’s still a humbling reminder that whatever humans might think we control in the world, we are still entirely at the mercy of – and ultimately dependent on – the good will of Mother Nature.


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Autumn in the Spring

The maples are budding, daffodils and forsythia are in bloom and the weather is mercurial – must be Spring in the mid-Atlantic! (Who am I kidding, our weather is always mercurial.)
Most plants are still brown and lifeless, but the occasional splashes of color inspired me to go spicebush hunting. One foraging book nicknamed it “forsythia of the forest” because its yellow blooms arrive in early spring. I figured the spicebush (Lidera benzoin) would stand out against the muted brown backdrop of the local woods.
Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t see any yellow for all the … green? Turns out that another forage-worthy shrub is also coming out of dormancy at this early date: autumn olive, aka Japanese silverberry (Eleaganus umbellata). Everywhere I looked, my attention was drawn to the bright grassy color of new autumn olive leaves. This invasive species had apparently moved in and made this area its new home. Which meant I had to get up close and personal to make sure I could tell the difference between spicebush and autumn olive.
Here’s what I found out.
Both of plants feature multiple stems growing from the ground as part of one “shrub”. However it wasn’t clear in either case if these were individual plants that just grew together, or separate stems from a single plant. They also both have silver gray bark. In the winter, they would be especially hard to tell apart. Both produce edible fruit in the fall, which is the easiest time to distinguish them from one another. The spicebush fruit (primarily used for seasoning rather than eating straight) is a bright red, large berry that stands out against the dark green foliage. (Spicebush Photos) Autumn olive berries are also red, but small and speckled. (Autumn Olive Photos) The tart berries can be eaten raw, although the seeds make up the majority of the size so it’s not much fun. Alternatively the berries can also be processed through a food mill for pulp, or juiced. (Because autumn olives are invasive, picking the fruit and carefully disposing of the seeds so they don’t spread further could be considered community service!)
Generally speaking, spicebush appears to prefer growing in mature woods, under the canopy of tall hardwoods like hickory, oak and beech. By contrast I found autumn olive more frequently along the perimeter of wooded areas, along roadsides, or in open fields. If you drive anywhere in the piedmont region of Maryland right now and see “something” greening up under the trees along the roadsides, it’s most likely autumn olive. Although don’t look while you are actually driving, please – keep your eyes on the road!
In terms of height, spicebush only grows to about 12 ft (2 m) tall, whereas autumn olive can reach the height of a small tree, around 20 ft (6 m). Autumn olive also appears to have a much wider profile, as its branches tend to arch out more than spicebush (although this seems to vary).
Up close, the springtime differences between the two were more obvious. The spicebush buds are frilly looking yellowish flowers, whereas the autumn olive “buds” are leaves with reddish speckled undersides. Speaking of speckles, I noticed that the gray bark of the spicebush is sprinkled with lighter dots. The autumn olive bark is also dotted, but less dramatically than the spicebush bark.
Final remarks: spicebush twigs and leaves have the same aromatic flavor as the berries. If you are 100% sure of your identification, you can break off a dead twig and nibble it for the flavor, or collect several to brew a chai-like tea. NEVER NIBBLE A PLANT IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS ABOUT WHAT IT IS. I.e., don’t nibble the twig to confirm that it is spicebush. Also don’t take any twigs that are clearly alive and growing. That’s just rude.
And for the record: by the end of April, there will be ZERO doubt which shrubs are autumn olive. They produce clusters of white flowers that smell AMAZING if you get anywhere near them.
Happy foraging!