Saturday, March 31, 2012

Japanese Knotweed Identified

Knotweed flowering
Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) is a wonderful wild edible, but a horrible invasive species. It came originally from Asia, and has spread to the US from the UK as a planted ornamental plant for its pretty white flower sprays in summer and fall. Japanese knotweed will grow just about anywhere, next to water, on the side of the road and railroad tracks, anywhere there is ample sunlight. It will also grow in just about any type of soil, so it easily excludes native vegetation. It spreads mainly through rhizomes underground, but the seeds have "wings" to better ride the winds. The rhizomes are strong enough to grow through asphalt and retaining walls, causing damage to structures. The thick layer of last season's decomposing dry stems will outmulch all competitors, creating large stands of impenetrable knotweed forests.
Last season's dry stems

The shoots appear next to the last season's dry stems, first as pink shoots, then growing quickly into tall, red-speckled green stems with a crown of curled, green leaves. The shoots have a sour, green apple-like taste, but with an odd vegetal quality. It is probably one of those love-or-hate tastes. Some recipes may call for you to peel the stalks, which we do with a potato peeler. When the shoots are about 3"-8" tall is the best time to gather them to use in recipes like dessert bars, tapioca, or a jelly. If the stems are about 8"-12" tall, we still pick them to make the jelly or wine. When they get too much taller, more leaves will unfurl and the stems become tough and stringy, almost more string than flesh. The stems can grow 6'-12' tall, and there is a second species that grows in our area that is even bigger, the giant knotweed (Polygonum sachalinense).

There are several very distinct identifiers, including the jointed stem which looks like bamboo, a membranous sheath at each of the stem joints, and leaves that are broadly oval with an oddly straight base and a pointy tip. They unfurl into leaves about 5"-6" long and 2"-4" wide. When sliced, knotweed has a mucilaginous quality. Japanese knotweed does contain some oxalic acid and should not be consumed in massive quantities. It also contains resveratrol, which is the same compound found in grapes and red wine that might positively affect heart disease. Most resveratrol nutritional supplements are derived from Japanese knotweed.

Japanese knotweed chilled soup

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dock Recipe: Dock Stuffed Baozi (Chinese Steamed Buns)

Curly dock
Some of the more common greens in our area are the docks- curly dock (Rumex crispus) and broad leaf dock (Rumex obtsifolius). Dock greens are not tender enough to eat raw as a salad for most people, but they are tough enough to stand up to cooking as a pot herb. Essentially, you can chop them and add them to soups, curries, stews, casseroles, and any other place you might have used another green like kale or cooked spinach.

Broad leaf dock
We made the filling to this recipe two ways, once with curly dock, once with broad leaf dock. The filling made with curly dock had a sour/tangy taste, almost lemony, and was a bit more tender. The filling made with broad leaf dock was slightly bitter, and the texture was more substantial and toothsome. Both fillings were excellent, so make the buns with whatever dock you have, or to fit you tastes. We like both sour greens and bitter greens, so we would make them both again with the abundance of free, local, and fresh wild foraged dock in our area. As usual, this is a vegetarian recipe. We used some re-hydrated Hen of the Woods mushrooms, but you could use some shiitake or white buttons. You will need a bamboo steamer and some parchment or wax paper squares to steam the buns on.

Dock Stuffed Baozi                       makes 16 filled buns

Bun dough
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. warm water
2 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1. To make the bun dough, mix together the yeast, 1 tsp. sugar, 1/4 c. flour and 1/4 c. water. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes, becoming bubbly.
2. Mix in the additional 1/2 c. water,  2 c. flour, salt, sugar, and vegetable oil. Knead the dough until its surface is smooth. Place in a greased bowl, cover, and allow it to rise for 2 1/2-3 hours.
3. Punch down the dough and knead until smooth. Divide the dough into 16 portions. Roll each portion into a ball.
4. Flatten a dough ball in the palm of your floured hands into a 3" circle. Spoon 2 Tbsp of cooled filling into the center of the circle, then gather up the edges and pinch them closed. Place the filled bun onto a small square of parchment paper or waxed paper to rest for 30 minutes, covered.
5. Steam the filled buns over simmering water for 15 minutes in a covered bamboo steamer. Serve hot with dipping sauce.

1 tsp. minced ginger
2 Tbsp minced garlic
1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp peanut or olive oil
1/4 c. chopped mushrooms
1/4 c. crumbled firm tofu
1 tsp. soy sauce
3 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp soy sauce
6 c. coarsely chopped dock leaves
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

1. In a saute pan over medium high heat, heat the toasted sesame oil and peanut or olive oil. Add the minced  ginger and garlic and saute 1 minute.
2. Add the chopped mushrooms, crumbled tofu, and 1 tsp. soy sauce and saute for 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
3. Using the same hot pan, add the water and 1 Tbsp soy sauce and bring them up to a boil. Toss in the chopped dock greens and cover to steam them for 3 minutes.
4. Remove the cover from the pan, add the mushroom/tofu mix back into the pan. Saute until all the juices have evaporated, stirring often, about 5 minutes. The greens will have turned dark olive green and reduced to about 2 cups. Cool the filling mixture before stuffing the buns.

Dipping sauce
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp chopped chives, ramps greens, or field garlic stems
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 tsp. sugar

1 . Mix all ingredients together and let it sit at room temperature 30 minutes.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spicebush Identified

Spicebush Swallowtail on milkweed
The spicebush shrub is a favorite spice we like to use to season teas and beers, and add to stewed apples or to baked goods. It is a deciduous shrub or small tree, known by several names: common spicebush, Benjamin bush, or wild allspice. It is native to eastern North America, ranging from Maine, through Kansas and into northern Florida. It is a favorite food of the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly and its larvae.

Spicebush grows as an understory shrub in wet forests, along trails, in swamps, and rich woodlands. In the early spring, they are often the first shrub or small tree to produce their flower clusters, which are small, yellow and fragrant. The flowers are produced before the leaves appear, and are either male or female. The shrub is not self-fertile, so both male and female plants must be present for the production of viable berries and seeds to be produced on the female shrubs.

The leaves are alternate, simple, oval and broader after the mid point of the leaf. They are bright green, about 2"-6" long. The bark is grey/brown and spotted with small bumps called lenticles. When picked fresh, the twigs can be used as a seasoning for teas and skewering meats over a grill, with a mildly spicy/citrusy flavor.

The berries are drupes,, about 1/2" long and oval, ripening from bright green to red in August and September. In the center of each berry is a seed covered with a dark, leathery shell. The berries are highly fragrant, like allspice or cloves mixed with lemon. Soon after the berries are picked, they oxidize to a dark reddish-black, so we preserve them several ways throughout the year to use in recipe. We add them to vodka, keep them in sugar, or freeze the whole berries, since they contain lots of volatile oils that dissipate if the berry is dried. Robert likes to add spicebush berries to beers that he brews.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hairy Bittercress Identified

This is a new spring green for us, one that is ready to eat right now. "Wildman" Steve Brill had asked if we were finding hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in our area yet, but we had never looked for it before. I browsed through a few books to look for it with no success, but it was listed on his app "Wild Edibles", available in the android Marketplace.

Hairy bittercress is known by other common names like pepperweed, snapweed, and land cress. It is in the mustard family, and has the same peppery, bitter flavor as other mustards. It is best to gather the greens very early in the spring, or in the late fall when the leaves are tender. The many leaf stalks grow from a basal rosette, can reach about 4" long, and are sparsely hairy. Each leaf stalk has 5-9 paired leaflets, and the largest unpaired leaflet is at the tip of the stalk. From the center of the basal rosette, flower stalks will grow up to 10" tall, with several more leaf stalks growing from the main stem. The flowers are very small, white, and have 4 petals, and will bloom while the seed capsules are forming. The seed capsules are small, about 1/2"-1" long, and olive green. When the seed capsules are mature, they can explode and spread the tiny seeds far from the parent plant. While the flowers and flower stalks are edible, they may seem a bit tough compared to the more tender leaf stalks and leaflets.

Hairy bittercress may be considered an invasive lawn weed, as it will form dense mats of rosettes over an area. It likes to grow in disturbed soil, in a sunny area that may be a bit wet. A great place to find it is invading greenhouses and newly potted plants and gardens. We found some growing next to buildings, where a micro-climate is produced by the building insulating the soil and rainwater is dropped from the roof. Hairy bittercress is originally from Europe and Asia, but now widely spread throughout North America..

To gather the hairy bittercress, we just lift up the cluster of leaf stalks and cut them with a knife near the ground. Then we wash the greens and pick through them, discarding the yellow leaves and pinching off some of the larger stems and flower stalks. They add a peppery bite to raw salads, and can be cooked with soups or in a recipe like other greens. We did eat a big salad with a yogurt and bittercress dressing for dinner one night, and may try some potatoes cooked with bittercress and field onions into a breakfast hash this week.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hairy Bittercress Recipe - Yogurt Bittercress Dressing

After we finally found a good amount of hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) this past weekend, we made a big salad full of the mildly bitter and peppery greens. The salad also contained some goat cheese and some sliced pickled ramps that we made almost 2 years ago, and a creamy Yogurt and Bitercress Dressing. If you are not a fan of bitter or peppery foods, you might just serve the dressing over more tender lettuces. We love the bite from the bittercress, and its season is almost over, so we try to eat as much as we can when it is young.

This recipe is available in our book, available Spring 2016.
Hairy bittercress

Friday, March 16, 2012

Field Garlic, or Yard Onions Identified

Cleaned bulbs of field garlic
Even with the warm, early spring, most lawns are brown and dead except for some tufts of long, green field garlic. We have always noticed the bunches growing along roadsides, in fields, and lawns coming up before most other edibles. It looked like an onion, it smelled like an onion, it had to be an onion, right? There are many different types of wild onions and garlics like ramps (Allium tricoccum) and the European ramsoms (Allium ursnium) that Robert is familiar with, and other species of wild garlic that grow in isolated areas of the western US. The wild garlic that appears most frequently in our area is probably one commonly known as field garlic (Allium vineale).

Field garlic is native to Europe, and is considered an invasive species in a few states. A few years ago when I was trying to Google "yard onions" I mostly came across people complaining about the plant, and looking for advice on how to eradicate it using herbicides, poison, and digging. Now there is more information on the edibility of your yard onions, but still a lot of opinions on the desirability of the plant. Some clusters seen to naturally produce narrower leaves that are more tender, and some clusters produce thick, tough leaves that are attached to a larger bulb. Using the correct stage of the plant is crucial to enjoying this edible weed. This is  a plant that could easily be added to any recipe calling for onions, garlic, or chives. Gillian likes the large bulbs grilled with a bit of salt and olive oil.

Grilled with olive oil and salt

bulbs of field garlic
The leaves of field garlic are slender, waxy, hollow tubes that can grow 12"-18" tall. The bulbs can be 1/4"-3/4" in diameter, and are covered with a fibrous outer layer that is easily removed. The bulbs sometimes have small cloves covered in a hard shell attached to them under the fibrous layer. The big bulbs can be used like an onion, and although the tiny cloves are a pain to peel, they have a sweeter taste. The tender, smaller leaves can be used like chives in many recipes, chopped into salads, and added to soups. Once the leaves get larger, they get a bit tough and stringy, but are still good to cook with in soups.

The field garlic flowers in June, growing on a tough stem. A ball of tiny bulbs, called bubils, grows at the top of the stem. From some of the bubils a six petaled, purple flower forms before the tiny bulbs fall to the ground to propagate. This flower is also edible, making a pretty, savory addition to an early summer salad.

Star of Bethlehem-see the white stripes?
There is one poisonous look-alike to field garlic, a common wild flower called Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). It comes up at the same time and often right next to some field garlic. It is easily distinguished by the flat shape of the long leaves, a white stripe along the length of the leaf, and no onion odor. It produces a white, 6 petaled flower. The bulbs of this flower contain alkaloids and cardenolides, which are toxic to humans and livestock.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Field Garlic Recipe - Cottage Cheese & Field Garlic Bread

Snipping off the smaller and more tender leaves of the field garlic (Allium vineale) will give you a oniony-garlicky substitute for chives. In the early spring, the leaves of field garlic are very tender, and would also make a nice addition to a potato salad. Later in the season when the leaves get a bit tougher and stringy, the leaves can be chopped and added to soups. The purple flowers produced at the ends of the leaves make a tasty and pretty garnish in salads. I give the full leaves a quick rinse, then pile them up to chop through with a sharp cleaver to get fine pieces. This bread recipe is more of a batter bread, since the dough is too wet to knead. Coming hot from the oven, it makes the whole house smell like an onion bagel, and pairs well with cream cheese.

This recipe is available in our book, available Spring 2016.