Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Black Locust Recipe Roundup

In about another week the black locust trees will bloom for about 8-12 days, a brief period in which we collect and eat them like mad. We have only frozen them with mild success. They lose their charming snap and crunch and become suitable only for adding to cooked recipes like custards and oatmeal after freezing.

Black locust blossoms are best eaten raw out-of-hand, but we still created a few recipes with this fragrant bloom. Our favorite is likely the syrup; mixing it with carbonated water or seltzer makes an awesome soda, and it can be used as a flavored syrup for mixed drinks, with a black locust cluster tucked over the rim of the glass which has been rolled in flavored sugar. The flowers can be ground into sugar to flavor it by using a mortar and pestle, or by pulsing them together in a food processor, but the sugar tends to get clumpy if kept for too long. The syrup can also be poured over shaved ice, or saved and poured over snow in the winter. A simple refreshing drink can be made by infusing the blossoms in water with lemons for a few hours, then filtering the solids out, and serving chilled with a splash of the black locust syrup. We even make a simple wine, by fermenting the blossoms with sugar and yeast, then filtering and racking for a few months for a stunningly clear drink, mildly fragrant and sweet, but that recipe hasn't been written down just yet, we need to test it out a few more times!

Jelly, crystal clear and floral

Doughnuts, with a touch of powdered sugar

Custard, a Hungarian recipe

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Milkweed Shoots vs. Dogbane shoots

Milkweed shoots ready to cook and enjoy

Milkweed shoots are not for absolute beginner foragers, and milkweed is a good plant to observe for a full year in all of its life stages before trying to consume it. A few people may have a bad reaction to milkweed in their diet as well, so taking it slow at first with tasting is a good idea. Spring shoots of milkweed are the only parts that can really be confused with another inedible and mildly toxic plant--branching dogbane. Both of these plants grow in the same habitat of open fields and roadsides, so some close observation, guidance, and experience is needed to safely forage this springtime edible.

Dogbane vs. Milkweed closeups of the stalks

 Common milkweed shoots, Asclepias syriaca, have a thick, lightly fuzzy stalk with opposite leaves that are oval shaped and fuzzy as well. They are at a good size for collection before the leaves have uncurled too much, about 5-8 inches tall. All parts of milkweed will ooze a white, milky latex when cut. Branching dogbane shoots, Apocynum cannabinum, are more slender than milkweed shoots, have a slightly red tinge, and are smooth, but also have opposite, oval shaped leaves that are slightly fuzzy. Dogbane also exudes a milky latex when cut. It is very important to look for the fine hairs on the specimen to properly identify milkweed vs. dogbane, we use a small jeweler's loupe, but a magnifying glass works just as well.

Dogbane vs. Milkweed shoots

While dogbane has practical uses in making cording, it is not an edible shoot, and contains cardiac glycosides, toxins that affect the heart. It is terribly bitter to taste, a warning sign in any plant that a human or animal may try to consume. Later in its life cycle, dogbane will produce multiple branches from the main stalk, differentiating it from milkweed which does not branch often. The flowers of milkweed and dogbane are also very different, and no confusion between the two plants happens at such a late stage. Dogbane is sometimes planted in flower gardens and is a common weed that is native to North America, so it doesn't need to be removed or eradicated, just properly identified when hunting for milkweed shoots in the spring as food.

Milkweed flowers

Friday, May 8, 2015

Milkweed Shoots Recipe - Milkweed Frittata

As spring quickly marches forward towards summer, there are so many fresh wild greens popping up every day that we can eat a #wildfoodeveryday. Ramps greens can easily go into anything that requires onions or garlic, dandelion greens are still tender and not yet bitter, so they go in salads and baked dishes with grains, violets get tossed on everything for color and garnish, and milkweed shoots and feral asparagus are eaten lightly boiled, buttered, and salted on their own.

Milkweed shoots are a mild green vegetable. Some older foraging guides perpetuate the myth that milkweed needs to be boiled in multiple changes of water to make it safe, but we don't follow this faulty advice that was likely the result of someone confusing milkweed shoots with dogbane shoots, which are terribly bitter and mildly toxic. We boil milkweed shoots and seed pods briefly for 4-6 minutes before using them in recipes, otherwise you would be left with a mushy, nutrient-less food that has been boiled to death. Pairing milkweed shoots with eggs and cheese is a natural combination, and the addition of a tangier cheese like feta is something we'll try the next time we make this recipe.

Milkweed Shoot Frittata       makes one 10" frittata, about 8 servings

2 Tbsp. butter
1 c. peeled, diced, and boiled until tender potatoes
1/2 c. chopped onions or ramps bulbs
12 oz. blanched milkweed shoots
2 Tbsp. diced red peppers
8 large eggs
1 c. shredded mild cheese like Monterey Jack or Swiss
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. crumbled feta
1/2 c. shredded mild cheese (for the top)

1. Preheat the oven broiler.
2. Over medium heat in a large oven-proof skillet, combine the butter, diced cooked potatoes, chopped onion or ramps, and diced peppers. Cook until potatoes start to brown, stirring often, about 5-6 minutes. 
3. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, pepper, and 1 c. shredded mild cheese together. Fold in the crumbled feta cheese. Pour the egg mixture over the cooked vegetables in the skillet.
4. Using a rubber spatula, gently mix the eggs until they are mostly firm and set. Quickly arrange the milkweed shoots around the top of the frittata like a wheel's spokes, sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 c. shredded cheese, and place the frittata under the broiler for 5-8 minutes, until the eggs completely set and the cheese melts and browns.
5. Allow the frittata to cool, and it will mostly release from the skillet in one piece. Cut into 8 wedges and serve warm.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Japanese Knotweed Recipe - Knotweed Pudding Cake

After we made the Japanese knotweed syrup, we started thinking about what else we could use it for besides flavoring soda, drizzling over ice cream, and pouring over pancakes. Taking inspiration from maple syrup, we adapted the Maple Pudding Cake recipe to make Japanese Knotweed Pudding Cake, a self-saucing dessert.

I'll readily admit that this recipe looks weird when making it, pouring the syrup mixture over the top of the batter really is correct, it will cook its way to the bottom and thicken up nicely into the "pudding" layer. While you can use larger knotweed to make the syrup, try to harvest smaller, more tender shoots under 12" tall for the cake batter.

Japanese Knotweed Pudding Cake                 makes one 8" square pan or 9" pie pan

1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 c. milk, coconut milk, almond milk, or soy milk
1 c. sliced Japanese knotweed, leaves and tips removed
1 c. Japanese knotweed syrup
1 c. water
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. butter or coconut oil

1. Heat the oven to 350º F for a metal pan, or 325ºF for a glass pan. Grease the pan.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, 1/2 c. sugar, salt, and baking powder and blend well. Mix in the milk or milk substitute, and stir just until combined, fold in the chopped knotweed.
3. Press the batter into the prepared baking pan.
4. Combine the Japanese knotweed syrup, water, 3 Tbsp. sugar, and butter or coconut oil in a saucepan, and heat just until the butter melts. Pour over the batter--it will look weird, do not stir it!
5. Bake 35-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean and the top has browned slightly.
6. Allow the cake to cool, the syrup mixture will now have sunk to the bottom and thickened, and should be scooped up with the cake to serve.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Japanese Knotweed Recipe - Japanese Knotweed Syrup

Spring has sprung and Japanese knotweed season is upon us here in southeastern Connecticut. We furiously gathered huge baskets of shoots that were less than 12" tall, the optimum height before the stalks start toughening up and getting woody. Most was made into fruit leather, which keeps very well once vacuum packed, several batches of jelly were made, more was stewed to keep in the freezer for making muffins and quickbreads, and some was eaten raw with cream cheese and raisins!

Why yes, that IS a biodegradable straw made from last year's knotweed stalks!

Robert made some tasty Japanese knotweed syrup, to which he then adds some carbonated water or canned seltzer for a fizzy, pink drink. The ascorbic acid powder is something we order from a vitamin company in bulk and add it to our syrups to keep them fresh and from crystallizing. It is basically vitamin C in powder form, adding a slightly sour taste to the syrup.

Japanese Knotweed Syrup        makes about 4 cups of syrup

2 1/4 c. water
3 1/2 c. sugar
2 c. chopped knotweed, leaves and tips removed
3 Tbsp. ascorbic acid powder

1. In a saucepot, heat the water to boiling and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves and turn off the heat.
2. Add the chopped knotweed to the hot syrup, and cover. Allow the syrup to steep for 24 hours.
3. Filter out the knotweed with a mesh sieve, and filter again through a coffee filter to remove all the debris.
4. Remove 1 cup of the pink syrup, and warm it in a small saucepot. Add the ascorbic acid powder, stirring to dissolve it. Pour this back into the rest of the syrup and stir. Store in air tight containers at room temperature for 3-6 months.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Japanese Knotweed for Eating and Playing

Japanese knotweed at the ideal size for recipes

We have conflicting feelings about one of the most abundant invasive plants in the Northeast, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, syn Polygonum cuspidatum). Yes, it is edible when it first comes up in the spring, and purportedly it has all kinds of medicinal properties, but is its potential edibility blinding some people to the fact it is also terribly invasive? I cringe all the time when I see people wish knotweed grew in their area! We have witnessed many native habitats taken over by a mono-stand of impenetrable knotweed forests, all to the detriment of diversity and a healthy ecosystem. Invasive plants like Japanese knotweed are successful because they seed prolifically, grow faster and earlier than native plants thereby cutting off sunlight for the smaller, slower-growing plants, and invasives tend to alter the soil making it undesirable for the native plant populations. While we would never advocate for the CT DEEP's suggestions of poisoning and spraying populations of invasive plants, we also feel we shouldn't gloss over the destructive nature of Japanese knotweed for romanticized versions of wild edible plants.

The history of the introduction of Japanese knotweed to North America  plus some identifying information can be found in the Wild Edible Notebook, a monthly e-publication put out by Wild Food Girl for a nominal subscription fee. We were very happy to contribute to the April 2015 edition.

Over the years, we have come up with several recipes to eat the spring shoots of knotweed, trying not to present them as an ideal solution to the invasive plant problem, but rather as an alternative to spraying or ignoring your local knotweed sources. Eat the Invasives! But also remember to curb their spread by harvesting responsibly and properly disposing of any plant material that may take the opportunity to root and spread further.

We have started collecting some of the dried, smaller hollow stems of knotweed to use as biodegradable straws. They are not completely impervious to getting wet over hours of being immersed, but are useful when sipping drinks around the house, and kids get a real kick out of wild-crafting with natural items they can find and manipulate on their own. Gillian has even crafted a blow-dart gun with the hollow tubes, using the larger lower stalks for the "gun" by cutting off the joints at both ends, and making the "dart" from smaller diameter stalks that are have the closed joints at both ends to provide air resistance when blown out of the "gun" tube. Involving your kids in the hunt for wild foods can be fun for them, even if they are just fooling around while you do all the dirty work of harvesting. Sword fights with dried knotweed stalks are always fun, and the hollow tubes can be cut down to use as small bowls and vessels while building fairy houses.

Lots of potential straws here, as well as building material for kids and their imaginations
Eat the knotweed, play with the knotweed, but don't spread the knotweed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Spring Greens 2015

Cardamine hirsuta, hairy bittercress

After so much snow this winter the spring greens and shoots are a bit slow to emerge. We find ourselves turning our faces up towards the sun on the nice days, warming our cheeks. Looking down at the ground for signs of life is second nature for us as we take short walks along muddy trails, and we are even taking note of the swelling buds of the trees. Not long now before we begin another year of enjoying our scavenger hunt for edible plants and fungi, where the prizes are delicious!

Matteuccia struthiopteris, ostritch fern fiddleheads

Allium vineale, field garlic

Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard

Hemerocallis fulva, daylily shoots

Urtica dioica, stinging nettles