Sunday, February 26, 2012

Forager's Choice Muesli

My favorite muesli
Breakfast has always been my meal. I almost never go out for it, and nobody makes it for me.  It is a chance to eat exactly what I want, how I want it.  I think a lot of people feel the same way about the coffee that they drink (but I don’t drink coffee).  Like brushing my teeth, bathing, and getting dressed, breakfast is part of my morning routine that I approach in a way that reflects who I am.  So it is no wonder that I often prepare this meal as efficiently as possible, using ingredients that are either conspicuously inexpensive and/or extravagantly wild.  Like most humans, I go through fads, and my breakfast meals are no exception.  My favorite breakfast dishes are pancakes with maple syrup, breakfast burritos, Northern Gold granola, muesli, and smoothies but I don’t rotate through these in any systematic way.  Rather, I dwell on one for months at a time and then randomly switch to another. 

Lately I have been on a forager’s choice muesli kick.  The recipe is simple:
     1 cup rolled oats
     ¼ cup apple sauce
     ¼ cup elderberry pulp
     4 chopped dates
Add water, let sit until the oats get soft, and enjoy.

Wild Berry Smoothie
Chinese Hawthorn Fruit Leather
A few days ago I discovered some berries that I hid in Dad’s freezer, so I am on the verge of switching over to smoothies.  I posted my favorite smoothie recipe last month.  I also found some frozen Chinese Hawthorn(Crataegus pinnatifida) pulp that Katrina and I made from street trees in Victoria.  Last night we made some Hawthorn fruit leather which turned out exceptionally well.
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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Incipient Spring Nibbles

The basal rosette of Siberian Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia siberica)
Snow is forecast for tomorrow and the foothills are already dusted with white, but the first spring greens are starting to emerge in spite of the weather report.  Today, while on a moss hike with the WA Native Plant Society in the Chuckanut Mountains, I snagged some tender leaves of a few of our first incipient greens: Siberian Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia siberica), Pacific Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) and Wall Lettuce (Lactuca muralis).  Siberian Miner's lettuce forms a basal rosette of leaves that occasionally survive the dry summer and cool moist winter.  More commonly the plants have an annual life history whereby they germinate in the fall and persist through the winter with only their cotyledon leaf and then grow like gangbusters in early spring. Today I noticed that the cotyledon leaves have widened into an egg shape and will soon begin to develop a basal rosette.  I nibbled a few of both the cotyledon leaves and the surviving rosette leaves from last years growth.  They were tender, juicy, and agreeable.  I find Siberian Miner’s Lettuce leaves to be tasty throughout the spring until the plant starts to flower, at which time they take on a sharp tang that burns the back of my throat.  There is another species of Miner’s Lettuce (C. perfoliata) with a similar range and growth form, but unfortunately isn’t as common around Bellingham.  In my opinion, Claytonia perfoliata is the NW’s superlative green, it is juicy like spinach, mild tasting, and doesn’t take on the burning quality of C. siberica.  It is still too early to bother harvesting miner’s lettuce, but it was fun to have a nibble.

The leaves of Pacific Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) ready for harvesting
The harvest season for Pacific Waterleaf, however, looks to be just starting.  In other parts of the country Waterleafs form an important part of a guild of plants known as “spring ephemerals,” and are commonly know by foragers, but here in the NW, our two species (H. tenuipes and H. fendleri) are inconspicuous, esoteric, and not very abundant.  Their edibility is also little known.  Erna Gunther documented the use of H. tenuipes rhizomes by the Cowlitz (See Ethnobotany of Western Washington in my Google Books Library) but I could find no other literature on the use of Waterleafs by NW Coast Indigenous Peoples.  I find the leaves to have a pleasant flavor but it may take a while to get used to their fuzziness.  The leaves would probably be served better as a cooked green, but I haven’t experimented with that yet.  I aim to devote a little more attention to my fuzzy little vegetable next week and try both the leaves and the roots.

Young leaves of Wall Lettuce (Lactuca muralis)
The trails throughout the Chuckanut Mountains are strewn with Wall Lettuce, a weedy member of the same genus as the lettuce available at the grocery store.  I typically find Wall Lettuce too bitter to enjoy, but young leaves that I tried today were not overly bitter and would be good mixed with Miner's Lettuce in a salad.  As we were leaving I noticed a few Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) poking through the detritus.  They are much too young to bother harvesting, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge another one of my favorite spring vegetables.

A cute but well armored sprout of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Catkins, can we eat them?

Catkins of Western Birch (Betula papyrifera var. commutata)
After following a string of notes about the edibility of birch catkins on the Forageahead list-serve I decided to see what ethnobotanical literature and a little experimentation could teach me.  Catkins are an important springtime food for several species of birds, but can humans eat them? 

Daniel Moerman’s book Native American Food Plants contains several accounts of edible catkins in the desert SW.  The young pistillate catkins of Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) were eaten by the Acoma, Isleta, Jemez, and Navajo; Rio Grande Cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizenii) catkins were chewed on like gum by the Pima and Havasupai; the Pima also ate the pistillate catkins from both Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) and Goodding’s Willow (Salix gooddingii). 

Ray Vizgirdas and Edna Rey-Vizgiradas wrote in their book Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada that staminate catkins from White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia) and Mountain Alder (A. incana) are edible and high in protein but do not taste very good.  Further north, on the Coast of British Columbia, Harriet Kuhnlein and Nancy Turner reported in Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples that the green staminate catkins of Red Alder (A. rubra) were eaten by the Straits Salish.

Anecdotes from the wild food community include the late wild food enthusiast Storm, who published a very detailed experiment with Red Alder catkins here.  Storm ate Red Alder catkins every day for 10 days with no ill effects.  He experimented gathering the pollen as well.  Greg Tilford reported on Red Alder catkins in his book Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West saying that they are edible and high in protein, but best left as survival food since they don’t taste very good.

Today I went on a short walk through an urban area in Bellingham and picked staminate catkins from 4 members of the Birch Family: Hazelnut (Corylus avellana), Western Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera var. commutata), European White Birch (Betula pendula), and Red Alder (Alnus rubra).  The Hazelnut and Western Paper Birch catkins were already releasing pollen, the Red Alder will probably release pollen in a week or 2, and the European White Birch in 2-3 weeks.  Katrina and I sampled catkins from each species both raw and cooked.

Catkins of Red Alder, Western Paper Birch, European White Birch, and Hazelnut (from left to right)

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) catkins
The Hazelnut catkins grow in clusters of 1-3 that hang throughout all the smaller branches.  Catkins are 2-4 inches long and relatively soft and flexible.  Raw, they had a texture like dry sawdust and a mild, bitter flavor.  Boiling for 5 minutes in salted water improved the texture to that of wet sawdust and mellowed the flavor.  They were not disagreeable and we found that the catkins with more developed flowers to had a better taste.

European White Birch (Betula pendula) catkins
The European White Birch catkins also grow in clusters of 1-3 at the tips of very slender, drooping branches.  At ¾-1 ½ inches long, the catkins are smaller and more firm than the Hazelnut catkins (though they are less phenologically advanced).  We found the raw catkins to have a crunchy texture with a bitter, piney flavor.  Cooking slightly softened the catkins, but increased the bitterness and gave them the taste of leaves or sap.

Western Paper Birch catkins
The Western Birch catkins grow singly from multiple points along the previous year’s new growth.  Catkins are 1 ½-2 ½ inches long, soft, and flexible.  Their flavor raw was astringent and piney, but less intense than the European White Birch.  Boiling produced and aroma like grass or peas and darkened the water to a greenish yellow.  The cooked catkins tasted more bitter than the raw catkins.

Red Alder (Alnus rubra) catkins
Our final taste test was of Red Alder.  Catkins are 1 ½-3 inches long, hard, dark green to reddish, and arising in terminal clusters of 2-5.  The raw catkins had an acrid, fir needle taste with an astringent after taste.  They exploded in the boiling water releasing their pollen and a mildly sweet aroma akin to sap and boiled nettles.  The cooked catkins were very resinous and had a milder flavor than the raw catkins.
Boiled catkins on a plate ready for taste testing

At this juncture, I would have to agree with Tilford in categorizing catkins as survival food.  However, I can hardly expect that my first experiment with a little known food would yield incredible results.  I will continue to taste these catkins throughout their development and in the years to come, and perhaps time and experience will unlock the grouse’s secret to making the most of catkins.

Please note that I have included a link to my ethnobotany and wild food digital library on the right hand site of this webpage (near the top) for those of you that want to check out the books that I referenced.
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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Arrowhead- a belated homage to Chinese New Year

Tubers of Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia) a close relative of our Wapato (Sagittaria laitoflia)

Arrowhead being cultivated in China
Every year I look forward to the Chinese New Year with a little more anticipation than our Gregorian Calendar based celebration of New Year’s Eve.  While some of our traditions resonate with me (kissing, resolutions, and singing about friendship), I find the drunken debauchery and fireworks unappealing.  I also sense that most people have forsaken traditional feasting on New Year’s Day for chips and television.   The Chinese tradition of bringing the New Year in with cultivated native foods and feasting is what attracts me to their version of the Holiday.  Cured duck, fish, preserved fruits, and wintertime vegetables are featured during family feasts, and a close relative of my favorite wild root vegetable—Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia)—is imported to Chinatowns across America for the occasion.  Called Chi Gu (“benevolent mushroom") in Chinese, and Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia) in English, the tubers are grown by the Chinese in shallow ponds.  When I was in China in 2009, I saw a few small Arrowhead patches.

Garnished with a benevolent mushroom
Last week in Seattle I was lucky enough to find a grocer in Chinatown that still had some Arrowhead in stock.  I purchased as much as I could carry and Katrina and I prepared a dish featuring the mashed starchy tubers for a potluck.  We peeled about a dozen tubers and boiled them for 10 minutes.  Then we mashed them with a tablespoon of olive oil, and a half cup of coconut milk, and seasoned them with sea salt, cracked black pepper, and diced chives.  For garnish we placed an unpeeled tuber on our mountain of mashed Arrowhead.

Both Arrowhead and Wapato have a flavor that is starchy, sweet, and mildly fruity.  Their texture is very similar to Potatoes, perhaps a little drier and grainier.  I often compare their flavor to a mixture of sweet corn and Potatoes with a hint of grapefruit.
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Taste of Fall

Over the last few weeks Katrina and I have been benefitting from the fruits of our autumn labors.  Processing and leaching acorns has become a weekly ritual and we have been enjoying our canned, frozen, dried, and fermented fruits.  Today I finished leaching another batch of Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorns.  I saved the leaching water each day after I poured it off so that I could compare the water color over the course of the 6 changes of water.  As you can see, the water from the 1st day is significantly darker than the 2nd day, which in turn is significantly darker than the 3rd.  Thereafter, however, the difference is barely perceptible.  For the last 3 months I have been grinding my acorns with a Vitamix instead of my old pathetic blender and the Vitamix is producing finer flour.  I was in the habit of leaching for 5 or 6 days, but that might not be necessary anymore.  Based on the color of my leaching water, I will experiment with only three changes of water next time. 

Acorn bread cooking
After months of enjoying the ease of dry-grinding acorns with the Vitamix, today I decided to mix things up a bit and experimented with wet-grinding acorns.  When I was dry-grinding acorns the flour would heat up and get clumpy, preventing the flour from freely circulating throughout the blender container.  Not only was this keeping me from getting a really fine grind, I think that prematurely heating the acorns may have caused the oils to leach out more easily, damaging both flavor and nutrition of the final product.  Today when I used water while grinding acorns, I created a suspension of acorn flour and grit.  I noticed that in this suspension it was easier for the large particles of acorn grit to settle through the acorn flour to the bottom of the mixer where they were pulverized by the spinning blade.  Water also keeps the flour nice and cool throughout the grinding process.

These past few weeks I have also put the blender to work making delicious wild berry smoothies that are a perfect balance of creamy, sweet, tart, and chewy.  If you have never had a chewy smoothie, you’ve got to try it.  Here is the recipe for my new favorite smoothie:
1 Banana (for creaminess)
 ¾ cup frozen Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum)
¼ cup dried Salal (Gaultheria shallon) berries (for chewiness)
¼ cup water
1 heaping tablespoon Blue Elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) jelly
If you don't have Salal, try substituting dried blueberries or cranberries.

Canned Crabapples (Malus fusca) and Crabapple cider
We recently cracked open our first quart of this year’s Crabapples (Malus fusca).  After several months resting in very light syrup, I found the sourness of the Crabapples had mellowed to a pleasant pucker.  We sucked them right off the stems like applesauce popsicles.  A few days ago Katrina bottled some cider that she made with a mixture of Crabapple juice and apple cider that we pressed last fall.

Katrina working her magic

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