In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/2/2018

I had great plans for this week’s post.

I wanted to cover winter tubers which are great for foraging this late in the year. Unfortunately here in the mid-Atlantic we suffered from yet more rain this week. (While California burns, and then turns to mudslides in the rain… Remind me again how climate change isn’t “really” a thing?)

But I digress. Since localized flooding is occurring, I cannot dig up the roots this week. Heck, I can’t even find the plants in all the mud and silt and runoff. So instead, I will talk about a strategy for dealing with foraging disappointment: instead of hunting for the forage, bringing the forage to the hunter.

Meet Thelma and Jeff, my new hazelnuts (Corylus americana)!

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

(Sorry the photo is so blurry – my smart phone struggles to focus on objects that small!)

They are both cultivars of the American hazelnut: Thelma is a “Theta”, and Jeff is a “Jefferson”.

While American hazelnuts grow wild in this area, I have failed to find any in central MD. The last time I saw wild hazelnuts was last year, in West Virginia, while property hunting.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but the plant’s features were so striking I took pictures for future identification.

Hazelnut Leaves

Hazelnut Leaves

Now I know what they were, and I’m very sorry not to have found any since.

Have I mentioned I LOVE hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly involucre

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly leafy coverings

Ultimately, I hope to use hazelnut flour to replace almond flour in my non-grain recipes, because I worry about the environmental impacts of almond cultivation in California, where most of the commercial almond crop is produced. Not so concerned that I would go back to eating grains, mind you, because of the severe pain they cause my body; but concerned enough to try growing or foraging my own replacement with a crop native to this area.

Unfortunately, hazelnuts can take several years to start producing, and Thelma and Jeff were much smaller than I thought they would be. I have never ordered a tree or shrub from a catalog before, and while I knew they wouldn’t be full grown it didn’t really dawn on me that they would be, well, almost invisible to the naked eye.

I mean, seriously. If I hadn’t told you there were hazelnut shrubs in the wire cages in this photo, you would never have noticed them there.

Two planted hazelnuts

Two planted hazelnuts

Since it will take a while (maybe a long while) for these little guys to produce, my days of hunting wild hazelnuts are not over yet! Maybe I’ll find something next year … 2019 or bust!


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 11/25/2018

I originally planned to skip this week’s post. (I’ll spare you the list of excuses… so when I need them in the future they will sound fresh and new!)

But I realized today that I was wrong last week, when I said the foraging season was drawing to a close. It’s not ending, merely changing.

Check out this patch of wild salad greens I found this morning!

Fall Salad Garden

Fall Salad Garden

Top notch chickweed and garlic mustard, enough to last me well into the winter. Let the foraging continue!


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The Case of the Mysterious Citrus, Week Ending 11/18/2018

It’s mid-November and the foraging season is winding down in the mid-Atlantic region. We had our first major snow last week – five inches locally! – which is unheard of, to have this much accumulation prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. [Insert gratuitous climate change remark here…]

But I am not done posting! This week I will share with you the case of the mysterious citrus: the single strangest wild forage I found the entire year. Like the chinkapins from last week, I have never found reference to this plant in the (mumble) foraging books I have read.

In fact, I had no idea that citrus of ANY sort could be grown in Maryland, much less occur naturally, of its own accord, in the wild.

Meet: the flying dragon citrus. Also known as the trifoliate orange (Citrus trifoliata or maybe Poncirus trifoliata). I first stumbled upon this spiky guy back in August while stalking the local pawpaw groves to determine which had the best fruit.

Mysterious citrus

Mysterious citrus

There was no mistaking the plant was citrus. But at the time, that was all I knew. I noted the soft downy surface of the green globe; its three-lobed leaf; and the wicked sharp thorns. (OK, maybe I felt them more than I saw them!) But… what was it?

And how did it get here? I was also baffled by how this plant ended up growing wild so close to my home. Did someone toss a fruit out their car window while driving through the woods? How do citrus normally spread anyway? None of it made any sense.

Fast forward another month. In late September, I attended the 3rd annual Pawpaw Festival in Frederick MD, hosted by permaculturist and published author Michael Judd. While touring the property, I noticed a citrus tree/shrub growing out in the open, in agricultural zone 7a/6b. I had recently purchased a Meyer lemon, which is only hardy to Zones 8 – 11 so it must be taken inside to overwinter. It was odd, I thought, to plant a citrus plant outside like this, but I failed to connect this tree, in a permaculture context, and the wild plant growing less than a mile from my house.

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

Over a month later, Mr. Judd (@permacultureninja) posted to Instagram the final clue to my puzzle – a name.

Flying.

Dragon.

Citrus.

I love the name, and even better, I love knowing that the name belongs to the soft fuzzy fruit and piercing thorns.

After the snow and ice last week, I decided to go check on my local flying dragon citrus (FDC). I was impressed to find that it didn’t just withstand the cold; it seemed to thrive. The frost damage to the neighboring foliage made it even easier to see the fruit and its dark green leaves against its dull brown surroundings. Flying dragon citrus is deciduous unlike the “regular” citrus plants which are evergreens. However these specimens kept their color long past everything surrounding it.

In the following photo, the green three-part leaves and ripe orange fruit stand out in stark contrast from the tree the citrus has gotten tangled in.

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

A lot of fruit had fallen from the plant already – again, the distinguishing characteristic of ripe fruit this late in the year. Any other fruit dangling within reach likewise fell from the tree with the slightest touch.

Underneath its branches, we found multiple offspring, demonstrating that this plant (or plants?) was very fertile.

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Since so many of the fruit were ripe, I felt it was my privilege, nay my duty, to take a few fruit to help spread the seeds to new locations (such as my yard).

This photo shows the size of an average FDC fruit compared to a key lime  in my hand.

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

In addition to the small size, note the lack of reflection on the wild fruit. While a certain amount of shine on the key lime could be a waxy coating used on commercial citrus, the FDC’s appearance is also muted by its soft downy skin.

The flavor of the FDC fruit is less piquant than a lime or lemon, yet more tart than an orange. The seeds in the ripe fruit are huge compared to the juice vesicles, similar to a bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) rather than the more common grocery store offerings (Citrus limon and the Citrus limon x latifolia hybrid which is the fruit most commonly sold as “lime”). The flavor has an underlying hint of spice which adds depth  beyond the simple “sweet” or “sour” we expect of citrus in our modern world.

And yes, I planted the oversized seeds. It’s what I do…


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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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Pawpaw Preserves, Week Ending 10/28/2018

I lied.

Well, maybe that’s a bit strong.

I didn’t “lie” exactly. But I certainly didn’t believe for a second that my improvised freezer jam-style pawpaw preserves might, just might, actually turn out to be tasty.

Maybe I should say I was wrong… but that’s much harder to admit!

Much to my surprise, after a few weeks of the preserves languishing in my fridge, a quick sample revealed it was actually delicious. I guess the flavors had time to mellow and relax and blend, and by that time the instant pectin had set up to an acceptably spreadable texture.

So here is the pawpaw preserves recipe after all. (Sorry I don’t have the fancy WordPress business plan that allows plugins for nicely formatted recipes. Hopefully you can copy & paste it to your word processor of choice to print or save.) Also the blog post continues below the recipe. I am always frustrated when I have to scroll through mountains of text to reach the recipe in a post, so I try not to foist the same experience on my readers (all two and a half of you – hi!).

This recipe was a mishmash of the original recipe, Ball’s generic instructions for freezer jam, and my own compulsive need to tweak any recipe that crosses my kitchen counter.


Pawpaw Preserves – Freezer Jam Style

1 1/2 c pawpaw puree (mine was relatively lumpy for texture purposes)
1/3 c sugar, plus more as needed to taste
3 Tbs bourbon
3 Tbs apple cider vinegar
2 Tbs water
2 Tbs instant pectin
1/4 tsp ground spice bush
1/4 tsp salt

Heat pawpaw puree and water gently in a pan over low heat, so it just simmers for 10 minutes. (I am not sure if this is “really” necessary, but that is what they did in the original recipe so I did it too!) You can add water if it seems too thick, or strain if it seems too lumpy.

Stir in vinegar, bourbon, spice bush and salt. Taste and add a tablespoon at a time more sugar (for sweet) and / or vinegar (for tart) according to your personal preferences.

Allow the preserves to cool slightly, then whisk in pectin. Store in containers in the fridge or freezer.

Makes about 3 cups.


Pawpaw Preserves

Pawpaw Preserves

Here’s my challenge: how do I use the preserves? I haven’t eaten toast since I stopped eating grains years ago. And after many failed attempts, I finally realized there is no “perfect paleo bread”. I wasted a lot of time and money trying to find or create the ideal recipe for grain-free bread before I finally realized that for me, personally, mimicking mainstream food was actually counterproductive to how I had chosen to eat.

As a result, I don’t eat many things one would normally top with preserves.

If I ate ice cream, I could imagine dribbling preserves over it.

Stirring it into yogurt might work.

Basting pork or chicken while grilling or roasting might also be an option, though after reading Eating Appalachia I’d be concerned about how high heat would impact the flavor. Plus at least one member of my family wouldn’t even try dinner if there were pawpaw anywhere in it.

What’s a forager to do?

Feed it to friends and family, of course!

I decided to share the preserves at a Halloween party, and they were a hit! I topped crackers with goat cheese and a dollop of preserves and They. Were. Amazing. The goat cheese contributed a slight tang to offset the flavor of the preserves, and the cracker provided a satisfying crunch.

Pawpaw Preserves, Served

Pawpaw Preserves, Served

(I even made a few with store bought almond flour crackers, because no one at a party should eat a dish the cook won’t eat herself.)

Tips: Remember to assemble the crackers just before eating, and only make as many as will get consumed quickly. (The crackers eventually absorb the moisture from the goat cheese and turn soggy.) Also be prepared for a LOT of questions about what pawpaws are because most people haven’t heard of them, even in areas where they grow wild!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 10/21/2018

Back in August, I posted about ground cherries (also known as husk cherries, Physalis spp), one of the random but welcome edible weeds growing in my yard.

I was excited to finally try ground cherries. I allowed them to grow in three different places, even letting them take over a corner of my strawberry bed to make sure I’d get enough fruit, once they were finally ripe, to actually make something.

(A recurring challenge this year has been finding enough wild edibles to be worth using in a recipe. For instance, wild grapes were scarce, and mostly out of my reach except for one small cluster. Recently, I stumbled across some discarded Allegeny chinkapin (also spelled chinquapin, Castanea pumila) branches with burs still attached but only managed to find a whopping six full-sized nuts.)

I checked on the ground cherries once most of the husks turned brown, papery and lacy. Imagine my horror to find that someone (or something) had beaten me to the prize!

Pierced papery ground cherry husks

Pierced papery ground cherry husks

Every single one had been pierced, and the fruit stolen. The only ones which still had berries were still green, and therefore unripe. And there weren’t even enough of those to actually use!

I checked all three locations in my yard – strawberry bed, under the back deck, and next to the chicken run.

I finally found one overlooked ripe ground cherry to sample.

One Lone Ground Cherry

One Lone Ground Cherry

It was, shall we say, anticlimactic.

Sort of tomato-y, sort of tart, not at all sweet like I’d hoped given all the “ground cherry pie” recipes are sprinkled around the internet. So, while it would have been nice to harvest enough fruit to use, I am not as heartbroken over this foraging fail as I might have been!

Maybe cultivated ground cherry varieties are tastier, but I won’t even try growing them after seeing how ravaged the wild ones were. Hopefully whatever ate the fruit enjoyed the experience more than I did! (I’m assuming birds; maybe the same cardinals that ate most of my blueberries earlier this summer.) I’ll leave stands of plants by the chicken coop and under the deck, but I won’t them take over the strawberry bed again!