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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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 9/16/2018

In late summer in central Maryland, fruit continues to take center stage in the world of wild edibles … though depending the weather, other tasty food may be available as well.

I knew autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) was ripe following last week’s class with Fox Haven, so this week I set out to find some shrubs of my own to forage from.

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Unfortunately, many of the shrubs near me were still very tart or astringent. I was able to harvest some, but haven’t decided what to use them for. Making autumn olive ketchup seems like a wasted opportunity! In the meantime I will freeze the berries I have until I find a worthy recipe.

Don’t confuse autumn olive for the equally invasive honeysuckle bush (Lonicera maackii). The fruits appear similar at a casual glance, and both are ripe and red now. However autumn olive berries are flecked and hang below the branch. Honeysuckle bush has rounder fruit which sits atop the branch, and has slight striations within the fruit skin. The honeysuckle’s bark also lacks the smooth surface of autumn olive.

Grapes (Vitus spp.) are finally turning ripe as well. I’d been hunting for wild grapes all year, and finally found some that I monitored for several months. (I found another cluster of wild grapes, but they were behind a wall of poison ivy. I didn’t try…) I’d even passed on the chance to use these guys for verjuice as described in The Wildcrafted Cocktail.

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild grapes are much smaller than their cultivated cousins, and have multiple seeds to boot. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t reach enough grapes to actually DO anything besides sample. (Jelly or jam requires a significant amount of fruit.) Although I might have brought home a few heavily seeded fruits to deposit in a corner of my yard.

Itty Bitty Grape

Itty Bitty Grape

In addition to being very small, the fruit were intensely sour. I guess I now know where the term “sour grapes” originated!

Don’t confuse grape with “bur cucumber” (Sicyos angulatus), a variety of wild cucumber with wide leaves similar to grape, and grabby tendrils which allow it to climb trees and shrubs in the same fashion as grape. The bur cucumber sports a hairy stem, flower clusters that reach upward rather than hanging down like grapes, and spiky fruit.

Bur Cucumber

Bur Cucumber

Oh, and the bur cucumber doesn’t have grapes hanging in clusters in the mid-September time frame.

Just like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and autumn olive were both flowering at the same time earlier this year, their fruit are turning ripe at the same time too. Luckily spicbush berries ripen over several weeks, so the harvest is spread out.

Ripening Spicebush

Ripening Spicebush

Visiting various locations, I was able to collect two cups, though I discarded about a half cup of berries with black or blemished spots.  As mentioned last week, spicebush is best dried then stored in the freezer for optimum freshness.  Currently I have an electric dehydrator full of berries for (what I hope is) a year’s supply of seasoning.

Following a week of blistering hot weather, the past week was abnormally cool and wet. My garden has basically molded over, but the weather was excellent for a particular genre of wild edible – mushrooms. In the woods, I was able to find a meal’s worth of wood ear  (Auricularia auricula-judae). This fungus is also known as jelly ear due to the gelatinous texture.

You might’ve noticed I don’t often blog about fungus. There are many more poisonous mushrooms than poisonous plants, and I don’t want my meager experience to misguide my two and a half readers! But wood ear is one fungus I feel comfortable in identifying. Its REALLY hard to mistake this guy for anything else. Though please remember, this blog isn’t a fool proof foraging guide – please consult local experts and additional resources before collecting mushrooms especially. (For more foraging safety, see here.)

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Even if wood ear is edible, it must be cleaned immaculately in order to eat without gastric distress. It is possible for fungus to be covered with fungus, which might be less congenial to one’s digestive tract. These specimens though made a delightful stir fry … although they were not, in fact, seasoned with spicebush.

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner!


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Foraging with Fox Haven, Week Ending 9/9/2018

This week, I had the opportunity to forage with a group, as part of a class offered through Fox Haven Farm & Retreat Center. They run a series of foraging classes throughout the year, and people can sign up for the entire series or just individual classes. I happened to learn about this past week’s class via a Facebook event – possibly the only good thing that has come from Facebook all year – and I had to sign up when I saw the class name: Pawpaw Haul!

Fox Haven is “a farm, non-profit ecological retreat, and learning center”. They practice organic gardening, offer retreats and classes on a variety of subjects, run an herb-specific CSA, and provide our local coop with produce. Most important for foraging, they participate in the “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program” which allows them to leave land for native species in the local area. The land set aside for conserving natural resources is where we we spent the day hunting for fall wild edibles.

Thankfully, the blistering heat and humidity of the previous week had finally ended. The morning was cool and overcast, perfect for hiking through the woods. Lacey, the foraging instructor, led us to the area where the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) could be found. She taught us that if you shake the tree, any ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Unfortunately, this time the only fruit which fell was small and rock hard. The weird weather we’ve had all year may have been a factor in how small and late to ripen the fruit were. She said you can try roasting them if they are almost ripe to soften them up enough to eat, so we kept the handful we collected to try. I was particularly curious about this suggestion, since in Eating Appalachia they had specifically warned against overheating pawpaw when cooking; but Lacey said they had used that technique successfully at a local restaurant where she used to work.
Fox Haven Pawpaws

Fox Haven Pawpaws

Next on our class “to-find” list was autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is a very invasive species, but it also provides food for wildlife and humans. The berries contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes do, and the seeds are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. The seeds are so large, compared to the overall fruit size, it is easiest just to eat them along with the flesh. One shrub can apparently produce almost eight pounds of fruit, which is good and bad: it’s a lot of food, but a lot of seeds that can be easily dispersed and allow the shrub to spread even further.
Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

I learned that each individual shrub tends to have its own flavor; some will bear more sour fruit, and some sweeter. You can harvest fruit from different plants for different uses. The first shrub we visited had very astringent fruit (like an unripe persimmon, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing that). The second shrub had berries so tart they made my mouth pucker. (That one was my favorite.) Since we were planning to make Autumn Olive Ketchup, we wanted sweet fruit. At the third shrub – the sweetest so far – it began to rain. We ended the gathering early due, and only ended up with about 1.5 cups of the berries.
We also harvested some goldenrod (Solidago spp.) for tea. Please note this beautiful yellow spray of flowers is NOT what is causing your fall allergies! Goldenrod often gets blamed for what is ragweed’s fault, because goldenrod is easier to identify. But the pollen too heavy to be spread by the wind, and needs insects like bees to carry it.
Goldenrod Flowers

Goldenrod Flowers

We went back to the farm for lunch early, hoping the rain would end so we could forage more in the early afternoon. We were supposed to go harvest spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries but the rain never let up so we remained trapped near the buildings. Dried ground spicebush can be used as a substituent for allspice in most recipes. However the oils in spicebush fruit go rancid quickly (even after drying), so it should be stored in the freezer for the longest useful life.
The other plant planned for harvest during the class was Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The Jerusalem artichokes thankfully were in the garden near the buildings and barn where we tried waiting out the rain. Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family with edible tubers. The tubers apparently form as nodules along the plants roots as they grow during the summer.
Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

The tubers are very high in inulin, which is prebiotic fiber that feeds the intestinal flora and fauna.  This is another great example of a food that should be sampled in small quantities the first time, or maybe even several times. If you are unused to that level of inulin, it can result in a very “fragrant” experience. They are even sometimes jokingly referred to as “fartichokes”. The inulin can be reduced by roasting, cooking with lemon juice, or waiting until after several frosts to harvest the tubers. Or you can build up your tolerance gradually by increasing the amount of Jerusalem artichoke you eat over time. Don’t eat it the evening before anything important, like a major presentation at work, an interview, or any other time you have to be serious. Trust me on this one. I don’t care if you are a grown up; farts are funny.
However, the plants we dug up had no significant growth on their roots at all. We tucked them back into the mud, hoping they would grow more. Jerusalem artichokes are practically weeds, and any part of their tubers that get left in the ground results in even more Jerusalem artichokes the next year.
While we were in the garden, Lacey pointed out different herbs and invited us to pick a few to make infused vinegar. I chose yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and a few pieces of cayenne pepper(Capsicum anuum) for mine, and added goldenrod to it as well. I have no idea how it will turn out after a few weeks of steeping, but that is part of the adventure!
Herbal Infused Vinegar

Herbal Infused Vinegar

At the end of the class, we hadn’t harvested much to cook together! The small, unripe pawpaws were roasted at 350F, but they came out gray-fleshed and mushy looking. I wasn’t brave enough to try them! We also didn’t have Jerusalem artichokes to roast and sample with the autumn olive ketchup. Fortunately, another of the Fox Haven staff members had found some chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) while on a separate trip, and he shared his find with our class.
Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

While Lacey sliced and sauteed the mushrooms, we made a small batch of Autumn Olive Ketchup since we weren’t able to gather enough berries for a full batch. The recipe we used was similar to this one although we used ground spicebush that Lacey had gathered a previous year in place of the allspice. The mushrooms were delicious dipped in the “ketchup”. And yes, the flavor and texture of the mushrooms eerily resembles chicken.
I really enjoyed the class, despite the disappointing harvest. It was a very different experience to go into the woods with other people, rather than my usual solitary excursions. It would have been nice to find more edibles, and at one point, Lacey mentioned that if we were only eating what we could forage, today would have been a day that we went hungry.
However, I think there is a different mindset between a class and foraging for survival. The only things we tried to forage were the specific items we were looking for as part of the class: pawpaws, autumn olive, goldenrod, spicebush, and Jerusalem artichokes. If we really focused on survival, on the other hand, we would have harvested everything we found, such as dandelion greens, chickory, and the earliest hickory nuts. Additionally, if this had been our only food, we also wouldn’t have let the rain discourage us because hunger is a powerful motivator!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 6/17/2018

Summer is the season for fruit! Except summer starts next week, so we’re still awaiting nature’s bounty.

The exception is black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), which are the first cane fruit to ripen. Blackberries and wineberries won’t be far behind.

Black raspberries

Black raspberries

These black raspberries became accessible when a road crew “finally” (alas) mowed the roadside, reducing the chance of an unfortunate encounter with ticks and poison ivy. (Random mowing. Yet another reason why you shouldn’t count on roadside foraging.)

Recently, I found a wild pear (Pyrus pyraster) tree. The fruit doesn’t ripen until  November, and remains small and gritty compared to cultivated pears. Rather than eating straight, their flavor is best enjoyed in infusions. Pear liqueur, anyone?

Wild pear

Wild pear

I also FINALLY found pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees in the area. As is so often the case, they were there all along, I just didn’t know what I was looking for. The fruit should grow larger and turn yellow by August. I hope the weight of the fruit will help bring the branches closer to being within reach.

Pawpaw

Pawpaw

I am currently dreaming up a “food forest” for my front side yard, and pawpaws will play a role in the design. More on food forests in another post.

Deeper in the woods, female spicebush (Lindera benzoin) shrubs are starting to show berries. They will be ready to harvest when they turn red, much later in the summer and into the fall.

Spicebush berries

Spicebush berries

What I did not find in the woods: mayapple fruit! The lush carpet of mayapples had vanished. The few scraggly plants I could still find were too small for fruit, or the fruit was already gone. In two weeks, the entire harvest was just poof. Gone.

Not fruits, but still worth noting: yarrow & day lilies are finally flowering. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) made an appearance on this blog two months ago. This pretty herb is primarily used for tea, seasonings, or garnish. I am waiting for more flowers before I harvest any, so I can’t report on its flavor yet.

Yarrow in flower

Yarrow in flower

The shoots, flowers and tubers of day lilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are all edible, although some people find it upsets their digestive tracts. When introducing wild foods, you should always try a small sample first in case of adverse reactions.

Day lilies

Day lilies

Day lilies exemplify one of the main differences between foraged food and the industrial-agribusiness-grocery-stores. While they provide three different edible parts, the flowers (which are prime forage now) are each only available for a single day. You can’t really “plan” on having enough flowers on one day to feature as an appetizer for a dinner party. Nature doesn’t care about your hors d’oeuvre tray!


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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!