Posts

Nature’s Palette

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, paints an extraordinary picture of the changing colors in nature’s palette and includes fascinating notes on using plant dyes, including a DIY how-to…

After what felt like an almost never-ending winter, it is a great joy to finally enter the season of budding colors. Snowdrops, violets, and skunk cabbage might be the first signs of spring, but they never quite convince me that the winter is gone for good. It is when the leaves on the trees emerge that I feel assured: there is no way back to winter-land. The change of scenery is usually sudden. With it, nature bursts into color. We leave behind the lifeless shades of grey and brown and celebrate the   soft colors of spring. Shades of fresh green, with occasional dots of color, dominate the landscape. Comforting and calming colors of early spring slowly mature and change. Plants soak up the sunshine and richer colors come to life. The color palette of nature reaches near perfection on a wild flower meadow in June or on a field of wild lupine in July.

As the year progresses, the colors of nature become even more full and rich. The warm shades of the fall landscape bring another visual highlight of the year. The reds, golden yellows, oranges, and rusty browns radiate back the energy of the sun as if to charge us with energy before the world around us fades again into the greyish-brown realm of early winter.

Nature has everything we need, including color. In fact, there were no synthetic dyes until the mid 19th century.  Still, the world of humans had not been colorless. Until then, dyes and pigments came exclusively from nature. Think of old masters: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bosch…. They painted with the colors of nature. The fibers of traditional oriental rugs and renaissance tapestries were all dyed with natural materials. So were the luxurious dresses of emperors and empresses of the past. Fabrics of rich colors symbolized status, and their cost was high. Lower classes dressed in browns and grays, shades that were the easiest and cheapest to create.

Dyeing is not unlike cooking. It involves applying heat to extract, in this case, not flavor but color. A large pot is utilized to make a dye bath. The plant material gets simmered in water in order to extract pigments. Then fabric or fiber is immersed in the (warm or cold) colored liquid to absorb the dye. Some dye material might be hiding in your kitchen. Tea, coffee, turmeric, or onion skin all contain pigments that get easily absorbed by natural fiber or fabric. Henna used for tattooing and dyeing hair also creates beautiful rusty reds on fabric.

The process is fun and satisfying. We can start by collecting plant material suitable for dyeing (marigold, goldenrod, black walnut etc.), then we cook the colored brew. If our goal is to create a solid color fabric, we just need to put the textile into the dye bath. Otherwise, we apply our artistic imagination and prepare the fabric by folding it to create pattern. I like to get inspired by the techniques of ancient Japanese Shibori.

When working with plant dyes, we get the satisfaction of knowing that the colors come from renewable resources rather than petroleum.  Natural material such as silk, wool and cotton absorb the dyes well. Although the use of mordants (solutions that act as binding agents) usually results in richer colors, for safety and environmental reasons, I prefer not to use them.

Feel free to experiment. Nature is forgiving. Even unexpected results have their beauty. Sometimes we end up with a color or pattern that is much more beautiful than anything we could have planned. Mother Earth provides everything we need.


Dyeing Cotton Fabric with Annatto

Annatto seeds come from Central and South America. Traditionally, they were used as body paint. Annatto is widely used today as a food coloring.  The orange color of the supermarket cheddar comes from these seeds!

Annatto dye bath produces yellow, golden yellow, orange-yellow, or orange hues, depending on the amount of seeds used, and the weave and thickness of the fabric. Silk and wool can also be successfully dyed with annatto seeds.

  • 1 cup annatto seeds
  • medium piece of cotton fabric or 2-4 cotton bandanas
  • pot and stirring spoon (used exclusively for dyeing)
  • iron for ironing the fabric, rubber bands, string, thread and needle (you may only need one of these, depending on the folding technique you choose)
  • plastic gloves to protect your hands

Choose white or off-white fabric/bandanas for your project. Unbleached fabric will produce deeper color.

Gently simmer the annatto seeds in about a gallon of water for one hour. In the meantime, fold the fabric using one of the Shibori techniques. This is a link to one of many videos showing how to use the Shibori folding techniques. In this video synthetic dyes are used, so please disregard their dyeing instructions.

Gently rinse the folded fabric in lukewarm water, making sure that it is wet throughout. This will assure even absorption of the dye liquid.

Turn off the heat under the pot. The dye liquid can be strained, but leaving seeds in the dye bath during the whole dyeing process will produce richer color.  Put the fabric into the dye bath and let it steep for at least 4 hours or overnight. Take the fabric out of the pot. Rinse under running water and squeeze out excess water. Unfold the fabric and be ready to be surprised! Put out your fabric to dry. Before further use, hand-wash the dyed fabric.

Pine Resin

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, points out the many properties and potentials of pine resin…

During the winter months, when most signs of life have disappeared, I make good use of our local evergreens, particularly the ubiquitous White Pine. Besides having vitamin rich needles that make a tasty tea, it drops hundreds of pine cones.  Most of them are usually spattered with droplets of dried Pine resin, which can be scraped off and collected.

Pine resin is a very useful substance to have on hand. To begin with, it is highly flammable, which makes it very useful in fire making, especially when using damp wood. I’ve started a fire in a rain storm using pine cones and birch bark.

The resin can be melted down and used as an adhesive or a water-proofing sealer. By adding different fillers, we can create various media and glues. Hardwood ash, for instance, will make a hard epoxy-like adhesive. The addition of beeswax will create a more malleable medium, similar to tar.

The medicinal properties of Pine resin are extensive. It is anti-microbial, an anti-fungal and a pain reliever (especially for arthritis). It can be dissolved in oil to create an infused oil, that can be used in the treatment of chest complaints and cold symptoms.

These amazing trees have many more uses, including as a food.

Medicinal, Magnificent Mugwort

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden suggests the manifold manifestations of Mugworts medicinal magic!

After a day of heavy work, I was awoken several times throughout the night with leg cramps. Ordinarily, when I suffer from muscle cramps or pains, rubbing a Mugwort salve that I keep next to my bedside into the offending area generally puts a stop to the problem. However, when my body is particularly stressed, as on this particular night, it requires a more heavy-duty approach. At times like that, I may make a large pot of Mugwort tea, pour it into a hot bath, and luxuriate in the relaxing, aromatic liquid.

Another approach is to make some Mugwort tea and simply drink it. This is what I did throughout the day following the bad cramping. That night, I didn’t have a single problem with cramps and, as a bonus, I had very clear dreams. As well as being high in magnesium, Mugwort is calming and relaxing and kills intestinal parasites.

Mugwort has been considered a sacred herb by many over the centuries. In addition to the properties I’ve already mentioned, it can be used as a smudging herb, which when burnt, can kill 98 percent of airborne bacteria.

So, the next time you’re pulling that pesky Mugwort out of your yard or community garden, stop to consider the powers it possesses. You just might have a cure you’ve been searching for right in your hands.

Black Walnut Riches

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes the ways he makes the most of this sure sign of autumn.

Every fall, beginning in mid-September, I gather the black walnuts that litter the ground like green and black tennis balls all around our neighborhood. I try to gather the green ones, as they are less likely to contain the ubiquitous husk maggots. I remove the husks (usually by rolling them underfoot until the husks split) and put the nuts on a tray to dry them out, either in a low oven or in my dehydrator. After the initial drying I leave them sitting on a wire rack, to cure for about six weeks. Around Thanksgiving time they are ready to use.

To make use of the husks, I put them into a large bucket and pour on hot water. After a while, the water turns a deep, blackish brown. I pour it through a strainer into a second bucket, then use it to dye clothes or to stain wood. It makes the best tie dye effects.

Once the nuts have cured, I begin using them in my recipes. If I need nuts in my pastries, I’ll use either hickory nuts or black walnuts (or both), secure in the thought that they are fresh and haven’t been irradiated, like so many commercial nuts. Besides, black walnuts taste great!

The most challenging part is opening these tough shelled nuts. I use a strong knife and a hammer to split them in two, and then some snippers to remove the remaining shells (see below).

I encourage you to explore the many uses of one of nature’s many autumnal gifts.

You Must’ve Heard – It’s Garlic Mustard!

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden tell us about the many culinary delights that Garlic Mustard can provide.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a very versatile food plant, which can be found at almost any time of the year, from mid-winter to the height of the summer. The flavor isn’t very strong during the winter and early spring months, but it still has a bite. The fall yields the strongest flavor.

The roots are a good substitute for horse radish. I cut them up and put them into a blender or a food processor along with some vinegar, water, salt and a little sugar. Then I puree them until I have a fairly smooth paste. The result can be used much the same as regular horse radish. It has a similar flavor, whilst being less spicy.

GM roots

In April and May, the plants bush up and begin flowering. This is the best time to harvest the leaves. The fresh young leaves can be eaten raw. They have the flavor of garlic with a mustard after taste. They make a spicy/garlicky addition to a mixed green salad. They are good boiled, sautéed, or added to a stir fry. I have a friend who dries the leaves, crumbles them up fine and sprinkles them as a condiment over his steaks.

Garlic mustard-02

Lightly sautéed or steamed, the young pre-blossoming plants taste remarkably similar to Broccoli Rabe, but they are not as stringy.

The large basal leaves are ideal for making Garlic Mustard chips – crisp, melt-in-the-mouth snacks, that are always a big hit at parties. I brush the leaves lightly on both sides with oil, sprinkle them with sea salt, and put them on a tray in a 275o F oven for 4 or 5 minutes; then serve them fresh.

Garlic mustard Chips

The open flowers make a perfect garnish or salad ingredient. After the flowers die away, then come the seed pods. By the end of May, some of the green pods will turn brown and split to reveal their dark brown elongated seeds. June is mustard seeding month, where you can walk along the hedgerows gathering handfuls of seeds.

Garlic-mustard

Much like common mustard, the ground seeds of Garlic Mustard can be used as a spicy condiment, which can be sprinkled over food or made into a paste. You can also toast them like sesame seeds and sprinkle them over food.

G mustard seed

Foraging Field Garlic

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden tells us how to identify the best Field Garlic specimens and suggests how to prepare them.

Last year was a poor year for many species, owing to a late frost that killed a lot of blossoms. Even the plants that are normally hardy, and don’t flower until later in the year, seemed to have suffered. One of those, much to my disappointment, was Field Garlic (Allium vineale). However, this year is different. I have already seen some large healthy patches, that show promise of good harvests.

Field-garlic

A patch of Field Garlic

Field garlic, or “Onion Grass,” as it is more commonly known, is a favorite snack of kids all over the world. They love to chew on the deep green hollow stems that deliver a sweet, oniony flavor. A lot of folks use the scallion-like foliage in cooking. However, for me, the prime part of the Field Garlic plant is the bulb, which tastes like a milder, sweeter form of regular garlic.

Field Garlic plants either begin as tiny bulblets, which drop from the flower stalk, or from the underground bulbs sub-dividing. In either case, field garlic tends to grow in tight clusters, that give the appearance of a clump of grass. For about a year, the plants are too small to have worthwhile bulbs. It is only during the second year, when the stems begin to swell and grow tall, that there is a chance that the bulb has fattened up and is ready to harvest. Depending on the location, it could take a few years.

Field garlic bulbs

Field Garlic bulbs and stalks, ready to be incorporated into a recipe.

I use parts of the plant in all kinds of dishes. It is fun to use the bulbs whole, like pearl onions. In fact, there are so many ways to use them, that the only restriction is your imagination. My favorite way to prepare them, however, is pickled in a mild, sweet vinegar (my homemade red clover vinegar is ideal for the purpose and turns the bulbs pink).

Field-garlic-bulbs-in-bowl

Field Garlic bulbs

Quinoa cake on garlic greens

Quinoa cake over a lattice of Field garlic greens

Mud

Mud is messy. If you can get past this, mud can be absolutely marvelous! March is when mother nature tends to make a lot of mud, and with some old clothes you don’t mind dirtying and a sense of adventure, playing in the mud can be truly freeing.

Here are some simple things we like to do with mud:

Make a mud castle
Just like at the beach, but not so warm and even messier, mud is a great medium for building, especially when it’s a little dryer than it is wet. We built a fairy home with a moat around it, but you could build a castle, a house, a boat, or anything else that strikes your fancy and needs to be created.

Fairy mud house

Worm Charming
Alternately called worm grunting or worm fiddling, this activity is too much fun. By making vibrations in the mud that mimic the sounds of a tunneling mole, we can literally charm the worms out of the earth and up to the surface. One technique to lure your worms involves putting one end of a stick in the mud, and to rub the top of the stick back and forth between your hands so that it begins to ‘tunnel’ into the earth. Another popular technique is to place a pitchfork or rake or another similar yard tool into the earth and then hit that tool in order to create vibrations that travel through the soil. The World Worm Charming Championships are held every year in the village of Willaston, in Chesire, England. Happy worm hunting! (Doing this when it’s been a little warmer for a little longer – maybe within 2 weeks from now – might produce better results).

Stick technique

Pitchfork technique

Painting with Mud
For mud paint we like mud that is wetter than it is dry. You’ll be surprised to find the variety of color and texture that mud produces, and you can use this variety to create mud paintings on pieces of paper, trees, rocks, pavement, the sidewalk, or any other surface that will hold your mud. When it rains on your outside mud painting don’t worry, while nature might have washed away your creation, you’re also getting more mud to make something new!

Mud painting


Make mud pies
A classic mud activity, all you need is a pair of hands, a pie tin, and this month’s messy medium. Fill your pie tin with some mud (you can even make a fancy crust around the edges), and then leave your concoction in a sunlit spot to bake. Come back after a few hours and your pie should be cooked to perfection.

Gourmet!

Muddy Toes
If you’ve been to camp, you’ve probably done this in our barefoot zone, but March’s mud is even fresher. All you need to do is take off your shoes and socks, roll up your pants, take a deep breath, and wade into a mud puddle! Squish, splash, and mush this mud around with your feet. Find a dry patch of earth or a flat rock and leave your muddy footprint, just be sure to rinse your feet off before heading back into the house.

Muddy toes

Animal Tracks
Mud is the perfect medium in which to find animal tracks. You’ll commonly find dog prints, cat paws, or bird tracks in mud by your house or apartment, but keep an eye out for something that looks a little more unusual (raccoon, rabbit, even coyote). Let us know if you find something neat or want help identifying your muddy animal track.

Raccoon track

Maple Sugaring at Home

First you need a maple tree. There are two reliable methods to be sure you’ve got a maple – opposite branching and brown pointy buds. The internet also has plenty of images you can use as a resource to be sure you’re tapping a maple and not an oak. This late winter weather of cold nights and warmer days is the perfect time to tap, as the contrast in temperatures is what gets the sap moving within the tree.

Opposite branching and brown pointy buds

Next you need to drill a hole into your maple tree. We use a 7/16 inch drill bit to fit our spouts. Choose a tree that looks healthy (no decaying branches or dead-looking spots on the trunk) and is at least 14 inches in diameter (any smaller and your drilling will damage the tree). Drill your hole at a slight upward angle so that the sap runs downward, and while you can choose any part of the tree to drill, we prefer the south facing side in order to maximize sunlight, warmth, and flowing sap.

Drilling the hole

After drilling, clean out any pieces of wood in the hole. Now you can gently hammer in your spout until it fits tightly. We get our spouts from Bascom, but you can get yours from any sugaring supply company, ebay, amazon, or other places. You can also use other materials as a spout (plastic tubing is common), as long as sap is dripping from the tree into your bucket.

Tapping the spout

Hang your bucket! If you’re ordering a bucket from a sugaring company you can order a lid along with it. You can also make your own bucket from things around your house, and improvise some sort of lid to keep out the rain, snow, or inevitable bugs. We’ve seen milk jugs, five gallon buckets, sand pails, two-liter soda bottles, and more hanging off maples.

Hanging the bucket

Once you have collected a decent amount of sap, it’s time to boil it down into syrup! Sap is around 98% water, cooking it is intended to evaporate the water and concentrate the sugar. Forty parts of sap will boil down to one part of syrup – so be prepared to boil a lot. As your sap gets close to being syrup you will notice a sweeter smelling steam and a darker color in your boiling pot. Seven degrees above the boiling point of water (for most of us 219 degrees Fahrenheit) means your sap has officially become syrup, but really, if it looks like syrup, smells like syrup, and tastes like syrup, you’ve made maple syrup.

Cooking the sap

Now you can eat your very own maple syrup from your own maple tree, a delight that doesn’t come easily, but one we think is well worth the effort. Maple sugaring season is over when the sap stops dripping for a few days, looks a little off-color or has a slight off-taste, or when the buds start to open. You can pull your spout out of its hole (which will heal by itself) and give your maple tree a big, sappy hug.

Happy tapping!

Maple syrup!

Ice Art

Fun Ice Art to make when it’s cold outside:

Take a round metal pie pan outdoors and fill it with water. Add leaves, seeds, twigs, ‘pretty’ litter, small stones. Get a piece of twine or strong string, make a loop out of it by holding the two ends together. Add this loop of string so that the ends of the string are in the water but the actual loop stays dry, hanging off the side of the pan.

Leave overnight. The next morning bring the by-now frozen pie pan inside and run some warm water onto the bottom. Out from the pan should slide your ice art! You can use the loop to hang it onto a branch where you can watch the sun shine through it.

Leaf Games

Here are a few easy leaf activities for the fall:

Pick up two handfuls of dry leaves, putting them up to and just touching your ears, and then crunch – crunch – crunch them! Fall in stereo. The sound of squishing corn flakes or potato chips.

Find a lawn (perhaps even your own!) covered in a layer of leaves and make leaf angels by lying down and moving your arms and legs just like you would for a snow angel.

Use a rake to make a path that twists, turns and bends through a yard full of leaves, and then follow it! You can walk, run, skip, bike – it’s up to you.

Find colored leaves that have just fallen and are not yet dried out, and rub them on a piece of white paper. Make sure the paper is on a hard surface. Crumpling the leaf up before you rub it will help the color come onto the paper.

Daniel crunches leaves