In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/16/2018

As 2018 draws to a close, I still had two more foraging posts planned. Both posts were going to cover tubers that can be harvested well into the late fall and early winter, as long the ground isn’t frozen solid.

This week: yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus). I had first identified this common yard weed back in July, when its spiky flowers clearly marked the plant’s location. However the small tubers underground are the real prize, and the part which is harvested when nutsedge is grown as a crop. (Here’s a photo of the tubers.)

The tubers are reported to be sweet and nutty flavored, hence their other names: earth almonds, or tiger nuts. I was very excited to excavate this wild food which appeared to be growing everywhere in my yard. Tasty free food. What could be better? I even tracked down a horchata recipe, so I would be ready when the time came.

A clump of yellow nutsedge

A clump of yellow nutsedge

You guys, I have nothing to show for my patience except for several muddy holes in my lawn.

I dug up three different clumps of nutsedge, certain I would find at least a few tasty nuggets clinging to the roots. No such luck! Every vaguely-tuber-looking lump turned out to be thick, heavy clay mud. No earth almonds anywhere.

Nutsedge roots - no tubers here!

Nutsedge roots – no tubers here!

I’m not sure what I did wrong, except that maybe I tried harvesting too early or too late. Or perhaps I misidentified the plant (although the leaves do have the triangular cross-section typical of yellow nutsedge). None of my go-to foraging books covered nutsedge at all, and while many blogs note its edibility I have yet to find a step-by-step foraging guide. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write one… if I ever succeed in finding them myself!


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Chinkawhat? Week Ending 11/11/2018

Before we even start this week’s post, let me state clearly: I did not find an Alleghany chinkapin (Castanea pumila). This plant is also known variously as chinqupin or dwarf chestnut, and is closely related to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) which has been severely decimated by the cleverly-named chestnut blight. Chinkapin grows in the same range as the American chestnut, which includes central Maryland; since chinkapin is more resistant to blight, the smaller trees – and their nuts – should be easier to find.

What I found instead was a pile of discarded branches.

Allegheny Chinkapin Branches

A pile of discarded Allegheny Chinkapin branches

I don’t know who dumped these branches on the roadside. I saw them on a walk to the creek near my home last month. (Yes, it took me a while to write about them… sorry!)

I wasn’t sure what they were at first, but when I saw the burs which looked so much like chestnuts, I had to investigate.

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Here’s the thing: none of my foraging books, NOT A ONE OF THEM, had mentioned anything about the chinkapin. It was just me and my Google-fu. Luckily I quickly found my answer.

Once I knew for sure what I had found, I went back to scour the dead branches for any fully developed nuts. Apparently the nuts are even sweeter than regular chestnuts, and unlike chestnuts can be consumed raw. They are not found in stores however, for several reasons. The nuts are small and tend to only have one nut per bur.  Oh, and they have an annoying habit of starting to germinate before they even come off the tree. (See for instance the photo about halfway down this page.)

And let me assure you: those burs hurt if try to handle them without gloves! Notice how my sleeve is pulled protectively over my hand in this photo!

Chinkapin Bur

Chinkapin Bur … Ow ow ow!

Why would someone cut off these branches and dump them like this? I have no idea but I wish they had waited a little longer! Unfortunately the branches appeared to have been cut just as the nuts were starting to ripen. Of all the burs we pried open, only three had fully developed, beautiful round nuts. (The roundness of the nut is another identifying characteristic, as opposed to chestnuts which have one flat side.)

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

So I did what any forager, gardener and permaculturist would do in my place: I planted them! We’ll see what happens. I tried to treat the nuts like nature – like they had fallen on the forest floor to suffer through the cold, damp winter until the warmth of spring reaches them. Unfortunately I will have to wait for months to know whether it worked!


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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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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.)