In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Going Nutty, Week Ending 10/14/18

Fall is definitely nut season in central Maryland and much of the southeast. We’re lucky to have so many edible nuts locally. They require more work than just buying nuts at the store, but they are free and abundant. It’s a shame not harvest them!

Disclaimer: This is my first year seriously foraging and trying to incorporate wild foods into my diet. So everything you read here is based on research, not my own personal experience. Yet. I might move this post to its own page eventually as I actually practice the techniques described.

I’ve already discussed black walnut (Juglans nigra) on several occasions. If you live in this area, you cannot miss them. Their branches overhang local roads, where passing cars smear the pavement brown as they crush the walnut hulls. This is a dangerous time of year to stand under black walnut trees!

Roadside black walnuts in evidence

Roadside black walnuts in evidence

Most sources say to remove the thick green husk immediately to prevent it from changing the flavor of the nut inside as the husk degrades. The husks can also get moldy. Various removal techniques include the following:

  • Using a hammer to loosen them, then prying them off
  • Boot stomping them
  • Using a knife
  • Running over them with a car in the driveway
  • Smashing them between two rocks

I used the last technique, which may be less effective, but is primally quite satisfying.

Just remember anything that touches the hulls will get stained dark brown or black, so factor that into your chosen hull-removal method. Also if you wear gloves, they, um, need to be water / hull juice proof… don’t ask me how I know.

Yep, black walnut stains!

Yep, black walnut stains!

After removing the hulls, by whatever method, wash off any remaining bits clinging to the nut. (Stay out of the spray zone though!) Once the job of husk removal is done, let the nuts air dry for several weeks before eating. Some sources say as long as two months. The challenge is finding a way to let them dry while protecting them from squirrels. Luckily my yard lacks these critters, but there is no point in taking risks! My plan is to hang the nuts in mesh bags (the kind grocery store bulk onions are sold in). For now, they are hanging outside our shed when the weather is clear, and I move them inside when rain threatens. Your mileage may vary – if outside is problematic (due to weather or squirrels), a cool room in the house might work.

If you plan to store black walnuts for the long term, leave them in their shell. The nutmeats go rancid more quickly without their shell, and will need to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

Cracking the nuts is a challenge as well. The wall is very thick, and the internals convoluted, resulting in broken bits of nutmeat rather than the perfect halves from store bought walnuts. They also make special nutcrackers specifically for tough shells like black walnut. I plan to use a bench vise grip to gently crush the shells, hopefully in a way that doesn’t completely compromise the meat.

Almost ... there ...

Almost … there …

Now is also the perfect time to locate black walnut tree with nuts within your reach.  Why? In the July time frame, unripe black walnuts can be used to make a local variety of  nocino, a type of liqueur that originated in Italy. While ripe walnuts are easily harvested from the ground, unripe walnuts must be plucked from the tree, which is challenging when most black walnuts tower above your head. If you start a batch of nocino around July 4, it will be ready in time for Christmas festivities. But you need to know now which trees will have unripe fruit that you can actually reach then.

In upcoming posts, I hope to include some recipes for black walnuts, so if you’re following along at home you’ll know how to use them!

 

 


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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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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Future Foraged Fruits, Week Ending 6/3/2018

It’s early June. The air is drenched with humidity and honeysuckle fragrance.  Between the sticky heat and afternoon thunderstorms, the last thing anyone wants is to spend time outside. But now is the time to start locating the fruits that will feed us this summer and into the fall.

Blackberries (Rubus spp.) carpet the edges of meadows with white flowers. Last fall I also found black raspberry canes closer to these woods. Unfortunately, in late spring the thorns, ticks and poison ivy are so thick I couldn’t get closer to check on them.

Blackberry flowers

Blackberry flowers blanket the horizon.

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are an invasive cane species that are also flowering now. Unlike blackberries, which flower and ripen over a period of several weeks, wineberries ripen all at once, and then they are gone.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

Wild roses (Rosa spp.) rub elbows with the blackberries and wineberries; they are equally thorny. Most of the local varieties I have found produce small rose hips, barely worth harvesting in the fall and winter, but still a good source of vitamin C in times of need.

Wild roses

Wild roses

Now is also the time to scope out wild grapes (Vitis spp.). They can be harvested young for verjuice – not this young obviously – or allowed to mature for eating, juicing or jelly making.

Wild grapes

Wild grapes

Mulberries (Moraceae spp.) are starting to ripen, but due to the erratic weather this spring the flavor is… um… lacking? Definitely worth continuing to check as the weeks go by. Mulberries grow around this area like weeds, so there are plenty to be had if you just keep your eyes open.

Mulberries

Mulberries

Back in the forest, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), which we saw a few weeks ago, are setting green fruit – just one per plant. The fruit will be ripe when they turn yellow, hopefully in a few more weeks.

Mayapple Fruit

Mayapple Fruit

This very afternoon, I found a new-to-me berry at eye level behind large, glossy leaves. Curious, I crept in closer for a few photos. Turns out … THIS IS POISON IVY (Toxicodendron radicans)! Luckily I didn’t brush any leaves aside to take the photo (I think).

Don’t eat the poison ivy.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Berries – DON’T EAT THESE

(I didn’t really need to say that, did I? Please tell me I didn’t.)

The one photo I don’t have is a fruiting serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). Its berries ripen in June which is why the shrub is also called juneberry. I have been unable to find any of these wild, so I bought one of my very own at the Mother Earth News Fair in Frederick this past weekend!  Hope to have pictures to share next year!


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Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27

I’m not going to debate climate change with you.

Either you believe that the earth is warming, leading to increasingly erratic global weather patterns – in which case I don’t have to convince you.

Or you don’t believe it – in which case nothing I can say will make you believe otherwise.

After all, the climate change debate inspires more devout and feverish faith than dietary preferences. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, make some room for me under that rock of yours!)

What I do know is that the Maryland weather this spring has had more mood swings than my 15 year old daughter, which REALLY says a lot. April averaged cool and dry, punctuated by occasional days with temperatures in the 90s. May brought with it more warm and muggy temperatures – it was like we skipped straight from late winter to summer – complete with flooding and a hailstorm that shredded everything green and leafy in my yard.

To be blunt, my spring garden is in shambles. Which is why today, I am showcasing the weeds to which I find myself turning in the absence of the vegetables I should have been harvesting by now. (Yes, I’ve covered many of these before, but it doesn’t hurt to showcase them again!)

Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) – used raw, it makes a tasty, peppery addition to salads. Bonus: high levels of vitamin C.

Yellow Rocket

Yellow Rocket

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is just starting to come up. Yes, in my garden beds. No, I will not remove it … yet. Purslane is also an excellent salad edition – leaves stems and all – and is a great plant source for omega 3 essential fatty acids.

Purslane Seedling

Purslane Seedling

New colonies of chickweed (Stellaria media) continue to crop up around my garden despite the heat, and continue to find their way into my salad bowl.

Chickweed

Chickweed

Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) (or lambsquarter if you prefer) – another nutritional powerhouse. Currently my go-to green for cooking, since something fluffy, brown and hopping decimated the kale that managed to grow despite the weather.

Lambsquarter

Lambsquarter

And of course, spring’s dandelions seeds (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into any available space. This little guy is small enough to still enjoy raw, but I might let him grown a little longer to use in sauteed greens.

Dandelion

Dandelion

Hopefully the weather calms down some … hahahahahahahaha! OK, I couldn’t type that with a straight face. What I meant was, hopefully wild edibles will continue to adapt to the crazy weather faster than I and my garden can, so there will still be local, fresh vegetables to enjoy!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 5/20/2108

It’s late May and irises and peonies are coloring the landscape. The early spring foraging season has drawn to a close, and to celebrate, here are a few things I failed to find this year.

First and foremost: morels (Morchella spp.).  While yellow morels grow in this area of Maryland, I was unable to locate any. Which is not so surprising. People go entire lifetimes hunting, and not finding, morels.  I don’t often forage for fungi since I’m less confident in identification, but hey. If you’re in the woods in spring you might as well look for them.

Next: ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as wild leeks. Another of the delights of early spring woodlands. Like spring beauties, ramps are “spring ephemerals” which means they flourish until the leafy canopy fills in, eclipsing the plants on the forest floor below.

Last on my list: fiddleheads from the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Well that’s not 100% true. I did find a few at the perfect age. Unfortunately they were part of our landscaping, and I was informed (in no uncertain terms) they were off limits. I took a picture to show the papery covering that helps identify the fiddlehead of the edible ostrich fern. Other ferns have edible baby fronds as well, but this is the one I’m most familiar with.

Fiddleheads (osterich fern)

Fiddleheads – do not eat the landscaping

If you find fiddleheads, do not endanger the ferns by taking too many from any one plant. They get by with a little help from their fronds.