In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Missing the Mulberries, Week Ending 6/9/2019

As we cleaned out the side yard over the past year or so, we uncovered a mulberry tree (Morus rubra). Well, we actually discovered many mulberry trees because they are practically weeds in our area, much like black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia).

Now the mulberry is a proud member of my growing food forest. Carefully mulched and with the weeds cleared away, I am finally getting a bumper crop of mulberries … sort of.

The black mulberries are ripe and ready to eat

The black mulberries are ripe and ready to eat

The easiest way to find mulberries this time of year is to look down, rather than up into the trees. Especially where branches hang over roads. The pavement will be smeared darker than usual, as the blackest, ripest berries fall to the ground and passing cars crush them. Many people find mulberry fruit to be a nuisance. I find them to be delicious, especially in this lull between the end of the strawberry crop and blueberries finally ripening.

The problem / challenge / opportunity is leveraging the mulberries in my yard. Yes, I love it when the ripe fruit falls to the ground… but then it’s a hassle to scoop up the berries from the grass and the dirt. So, following advice I found online, I spread a blanket under the tree to catch the berries. Well, a floating row cover as the case may be. I worried a blanket would smother the grass.

A failed attempt to catch mulberries as they fell

A failed attempt to catch mulberries as they fell

But that just made it easier for the birds to find and eat the fruit too! And because the blanket was on a slope, the slightest breeze blew the fruit right off. After a few hours, there weren’t many berries so I left the blanket. Then forgot about the blanket. A few days later, when I tried to collect the blanket, the handful of fruit I “harvested” had molded and stuck to the fabric. Ew. I threw the whole thing away, grateful it was “just” a row cover and not an actual blanket.

My mulberry tree is young enough I can reach a few of the lower branches on my tip-toes. But even with diligent effort, I could barely harvest enough berries for any use besides eating right then and there!

A sad, small mulberry harvest

A sad, small mulberry harvest

What would I do with the mulberries if I ever gathered enough to “do” anything? I don’t know! I will cross that bridge if and when I actually reach that point!

(There are also white mulberries (Mora alba) growing wild in central MD as well. They are considered to be invasive in this area.  I don’t know how the flavor compares to our “regular” mulberries, but it must be nice not getting your fingers and face stained purple from eating them!)


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Burdock Adventures, Week Ending 6/2/2019

Common burdock (Arctium minus) regularly infiltrates lawns and fields in central MD. I first noticed burdock in our yard last year, and once I knew what to look for I saw it everywhere.

This year, we cleared out an area in our yard choked with weeds and overrun by poison ivy and honeysuckle. In the midst of this mess, I uncovered several second year burdock plants. I carefully marked them with flags so they wouldn’t “accidentally” get mowed with the other weeds.

Since burdock is a biennial, these burdock plants were already large and have since grown even bigger. They would make nice show pieces in an edible landscape, if they weren’t randomly located in our front lawn! In late spring, the second year roots are too big and tough to harvest for food. Plus, with the size of these plants I can’t fathom how big the roots must be. When we harvested first year plants for roots last year, we invested a lot of effort for the amount of food we got out of it.

First Year Burdock Roots

First Year Burdock Roots

(I apparently never posted about eating burdock roots, oops? Rest assured, the julienned roots nicely complemented the other flavors in a stir fry.)

Like other biennials, second year burdock sends out flowering stalks. Before they flower, the immature stalks can be harvested and many sources said they were the best part of foraging burdock – no digging required! Timing is everything; as you wait, the stalks get bigger, but as they grow they become more tough and bitter.

Second Year Burdock Patch

Second Year Burdock Patch

Apparently, when you topple the flowering stalk, the burdock plant sends up a new one to try producing flowers and seed. I’ve read that one plant can produce as many as three harvests of immature stalks. Sounds like a great food source to me!

Each flowering stalk had several side-shoots as well. I wasn’t sure if they were worth collecting too, so I harvested everything to be sure. Since this little experiment – just a few days ago! – I read that if a burdock stalk has laterals, it is already past its prime. Oops again?

Burdock leaves allegedly have medicinal properties, but I know even less about foraged medicine than I do about foraged food! I just composted the leaves I cut from the stalks.

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Harvested Burdock Stalks

Honestly, I struggled to efficiently and quickly peel the stalks. I used a paring knife and kept working until I only had the smooth insides. The fibrous outer portion seemed to take forever to clean away.

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

A cross section of a large burdock stalk

The smaller stalks from the side shoots were easier to peel, but had a much smaller core for the amount of effort required to get to it.

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

A cross section of a small burdock stalk

I eventually gave up on peeling these smaller pieces.

Also, the burdock ended up staining my hands slightly brown. None of the resources I’d researched on burdock mentioned this side effect. Not as bad as black walnut, mind you, but still noticeable. You can just see the stain on my fingers in the pictures above.

At long last, we had a side-dish-worth of burdock stalks. It didn’t add up to much!

Finally... Peeled Burdock Stalks

Finally… Peeled Burdock Stalks

I microwave-steamed the stalks with two tablespoons of water for six minutes, stirring partway through. I dressed the stalks with butter and salt. The flavor was OK, but nothing remarkable. Certainly not worth all the attention they garner as a wild food. One book I read compared the flavor to cardoons, but I have never eaten a cardoon – I actually had to research what a cardoon even is – so I cannot offer an opinion there.

One of my kids bravely nibbled a bite, and claimed it tasted like artichoke hearts. And so it did! In this family, steamed artichokes are enjoyed with mayonnaise – hey, don’t judge! – and indeed we all enjoyed the burdock stalks a lot more after dipping them in mayo.

The real question is: would I do it again? I only harvested what I thought we would eat, so several stalks linger in my yard. Plus, the three plants who sacrificed their stalks ought to produce new ones as well. Maybe I will try slightly younger stalks next time… stay tuned!


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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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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 5/19/2019

This year, I missed the window for milkweed shoots.

I noticed the milkweed (Asclepius syriaca) coming up in the field across the street from my house a few weeks ago. Milkweed is one of the darlings of foraging, because it has so many edible parts through so many different seasons: shoots in the spring, flower buds in the summer, flowers in the late summer and edible seedpods if you catch them early enough (also in the late summer).

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

The milkweed patch, for as long as it may stand

But you see, I already know what will befall the milkweed plants growing surreptitiously among the meadow grass and other “weeds.” In a few weeks, the farmer will mow his field to the ground, just like last year, and I – and all the monarch butterflies – will be deprived of this amazing plant.

Well. I can drive to the grocery store for food. This year, I am also “all in” on my garden, which will (baring any weather related catastrophes) will help keep me and mine fed. (Although the children will protest it, I’m sure.) The monarchs butterflies, though… that’s all they have. And they won’t have it for very long as it is.

Which is why I’ve decided to experiment with “reverse foraging.” I adopted this phrase from author Sara Bir, and I suspect most serious foragers have done something similar. The idea is straightforward enough: intentionally encouraging and even propagating wild edible plants. It can be as simple as ensuring optimal habitat is available for the plants – even just not mowing part of the lawn – or as complex as re-seeding ramps in a woodland patch getting bare. OK, I can’t actually do that because I still haven’t discovered ramps in the woods near me. But I can (and did) scatter milkweed seeds among the wildflowers I planted in my side yard to see if they would grow.

Baby milkweed

Baby milkweed


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Winter Foraging,Week Ending 3/10/2019

I am cheating slightly with this week’s post.

I hope you’ll forgive me.

I’d already posted about finding female staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) during the winter, since the lack of leaves on surrounding trees made it easier to spot the fruit clusters clinging to the ends of the branches.

Honestly, I thought that was the point to foraging staghorn sumac, because most other resources only talk about the berries, and using them for seasoning or “sumac-ade”.

This was disappointing to  me, because I have several random sumac plants growing in the less-well-tended areas of my yard. But they are all male and therefore of no interest to foragers.

Or are they? (Cue dramatic music in the background.)

Recently I (re-)read The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and he thinks sumac shoots are not just edible, but downright delicious.

A young staghorn sumac plant

A young staghorn sumac plant

The best way to get staghorn sumac shoots is from the stumps that remain when you try cutting the plants down. The sumac will send new suckers out from the stump, and these are the ideal parts of the plant to eat, according to Thayer. Once the bark is peeled, they can be eaten straight, just as they are. He describes the flavor as fruity.

So in addition to the female plants, I am now on the lookout for male ones as well. Staghorn sumac stands out in winter by its very bare, sparse appearance. The plant does not have any twigs or small branches. Younger plants may not have any branches at all. In this photo, you can see the stark contrast between the staghorn sumacs and the tree to the right with its multitude of branches and twigs.

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

The bark is smooth gray with light speckles, with periodic rounded crescent shapes where the leaf clusters of the previous year had been attached.

Staghorn sumac bark

Staghorn sumac bark

One word of caution: Thayer also mentions that sumac is in the same family as cashews and mangoes, so anyone who is allergic to those foods may have a reaction to sumac as well. I had not read that warning before, so thought it wise to pass along.

Since I am not one of the unfortunate souls allergic to mango or cashews, I will definitely try the shoots later this year and let you all know if they are as amazing as Thayer makes them sound!  The shoots are available in late spring or early summer, so I am guessing around June in Maryland. Stay tuned!


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The Dead of Winter, Week Ending 3/3/2019

The weather in central MD in early March continues to alternate between soggy and frozen… when it isn’t both simultaneously! Even today, the forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow. I have not tried to dig up the wild Jerusalem artichokes because the ground remains frozen.

Despite the cold and damp, some wild edibles continue to thrive. This week, I’ll be talking about one of the less appreciated greens available this time of year: purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is as ubiquitous as field garlic, spreading in massive tangled carpets across any disturbed ground it can reach.  Purple dead nettle is most recognizable in early spring, when the purple flowers and leaf tips blanket roadsides and fields.

Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family, and shares the characteristic square stem cross section of other mints. (As does henbit, it’s more frilly cousin, which I may discuss in a future post.) The leaves are heart-shaped, especially when younger, and become more elongated and pointy as the season progresses.  The younger leaves may be confused with garlic mustard first-year leaves, and I discuss the differences here. The leaves also look similar to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the fine hairs on the leaves do not sting – hence the name “dead” nettle.

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

As the season progresses, the tips turn purple as the flowers begin to form. At this stage, purple dead nettle is very recognizable. (You can see some icon photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site.)

Despite the small leaf size, it is easy to harvest dead nettle in quantity. If you find a healthy patch, you can collect entire lengths of stem, with the leaves attached. Once back in your warm kitchen, you can remove the leaves from the stems if you prefer, but both are edible. If using the greens in a recipe (for instance, as a replacement for spinach), I prefer just the leaves. Because of their relatively small size, they do not need to be chopped prior to use.

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Purple dead nettle is a great solution for “my recipe calls for spinach, but I don’t want to drive to the store to buy some.” Yes, I have actually done this myself! The photo above shows dead nettle used in place of spinach when I made Creamy Tuscan Garlic Chicken last week.

The cooked leaves hold their texture very nicely in sauces and offer a mild chewiness compared to other greens. The stems, in turn, are crunchy so work better sauteed or steamed with the leaves as a vegetable side dish. While purple dead nettle can be eaten raw as well, I am not a fan of the slightly fuzzy texture to the leaves.

Generally speaking, I would choose wild greens like stinging nettle or lambs quarter over dead nettle for most culinary uses. But in early March, we take whatever edibles nature sees fit to give us!


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/17/2019

(Is Sunday “really” the end of the week though? Or is it the start of the following week? I can’t believe I’ve posted (almost) every Sunday since April 2018, and that question only just occurred to me.)

This week we are discussing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which are not in fact artichokes and do not in fact come from Jerusalem. Rather they are members of the sunflower family; however, rather than edible seeds, the tubers are the parts that are eaten.

Unlike many wild edibles, winter and early spring are the ideal times to harvest Jerusalem artichokes. Winter’s cold actually improves the edibility of Jerusalem artichoke tubers, because the freezing temperatures convert inulin into more digestible simple sugars.  Inulin is a non-soluble prebiotic fiber, which is a polite medical way of saying that it may cause serious gastrointestinal eruptions after eating.  Collecting the tubers after several freezes is one way to reduce their inulin. Another is to cook them extensively. Using both methods produces the best results. Especially if you have an important business meeting the following day.

Here are photos I took of Jerusalem artichokes back in August of last year. This is an ideal time to locate the plants, because the golden flowers stand out brilliantly against the green foliage.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Because of how tall the plants can get, the flowers manage to peek out from even massive tangles of roadside weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

By contrast, here are two photos of Jerusalem artichokes in the winter. They are much harder to recognize, unless you know where the colonies were growing earlier in the fall.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

(I guess those are technically seed clusters, not flowers, but you know what I mean!)

These were some of the few stalks I found which were standing upright. The vast majority of stalks are flat on the ground, bent over near the base of the plant.

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Luckily even bent over stalks remain attached to ground, giving you a starting point to dig for the tubers. They can be anywhere from 1-4 inches down, and up to a foot away from the stalks, so a dense colony of plants is your best bet for a good haul.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to actually harvest any myself. The weather here in central MD has fluctuated wildly between temps well below freezing and ice storms, and then sunny and highs in the 60s! Which is then followed by rain, and more ice as the temps slide back to “normal” for February. As a result, the ground is variously frozen solid or swampy mud. Neither condition is optimal for digging up tubers.

I have toyed with the idea of planting Jerusalem artichokes somewhere in my yard. Then at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting them when the ground finally thawed enough to dig them up. However, the plants can grow up to eight feet in optimal conditions, which means finding a location where tall flowers – followed by flopping stalks in the fall – aren’t a complete eyesore. Also, Jerusalem artichokes can become a nuisance, as any piece of tuber left in the ground (and there will always be tubers left in the ground) will regrow into new plants the following year. Basically, once planted, you will have Jerusalem artichokes forever. In fact digging up the tubers improves the health of the remaining plants, because it creates additional room for new plants to grow. And they will spread if given the slightest opportunity. Definitely a crop which needs forethought and planning before planting!