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Bring on the Barberries

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden introduces us to a superfood found growing by some of our favorite hiking trails.

Barberries are an introduced plant in our area, having escaped captivity and made their home at the edges of our woodlands.

Straight off the bush, the small elongated red berries tend to be rather tart, but they can be pretty tasty when they are prepared correctly.  However, I eat them straight off the bush, regardless of their flavor.  They are such a potent superfood, that I don’t mind the flavor.  I rarely pass a bush without helping myself to a few berries.  It is as though I am taking a supplement.

Barberries are remarkably high in antioxidants.  They have been measured at 9 times that of Goji berries.  For this reason, they are a good anti-cancer food.  Naturally, they help build the immune system.  During the winter months, they are a good source of Vitamin C.

As I mentioned in my last Barberry post, these berries have been clinically proven to be highly effective in clearing up acne.

Now, as we head into winter, Barberries are once again coming into season.  If I can gather enough of them, I will usually make some Barberry butter, which can be used as a sauce over ice cream or as basting sauce for chicken, duck or fish.  It is excellent just spread on bread.

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.

The Case for Wild Foods

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden reminds us that there is such a thing as free (not to mention healthy) lunch, and it’s growing all around us.

 
Anybody who has spent any amount of time researching and reading about today’s food industry, will quickly conclude that the vast majority of “foods” on the market, particularly those marketed to babies and children, are bad for us.

Trying to be a responsible parent in today’s toxic environment, is one of the most challenging undertakings we face. For this reason, it is important to introduce our children to the concept of growing our own food. Just being in a garden and getting their hands in the soil can be of huge benefit to young minds. The connection to the natural world is vital to complete development.

Foraging in the garden

Most non-organic foods, even fresh vegetables, are likely to contain either toxic additives or residues that build up in the body. These ultimately contribute to chronic ailments, making it even more essential that we feed our children organically grown foods.

Of course, eating healthy can be pretty costly, but there are ways to reduce costs. For me, the answer has been wild foods. If you are a regular reader of The Dirt, you will have read about many of the seasonal edibles that I gather to help supplement my regular diet.

Our gardens and local natural areas are filled with free, nutritious and tasty ingredients, there for the gathering. All we need to do is learn to recognize them and learn to use them. Even if we pick the occasional leaf and eat it, it can help to supply us with nutrients that may be lacking in our diet.

Plantago major (common plantain)

So, take the time to get to know some of the wild foods that surround us (even in our city parks) and share the knowledge with your children. Or, better still, if they attend the Nature Place Day Camp, they can teach you.

A feast provided by nature

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

Foraging Wild Foods

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and edible in our area. 

I love this time of year. Everywhere we look, life is bursting forth. After the rains that visited us for a week at the beginning of the month we are having a spectacular spring. When I walk in the woods and fields, I feel as though I’m standing in a giant banquet hall, where all the food is fresh, tasty and free. I look around and I’m greeted by nature’s medicines, offering up their powers for our use. As different plants reach their peak, I gratefully gather some for our dinner table and for my herbal medicine cabinet.

After years of foraging I’ve come to know many plants like old friends, and I know just when and where to look for them. This familiarity comes from years of dragging myself through marshes, jungles, deserts, fields and woods, studying plants, making notes, taking pictures and writing about what I discover.

Hardly a day goes by at this time of year that I don’t either forage, prepare wild food dishes or make herbal remedies. Of course, mine is a rather anachronistic lifestyle in our high-tech age, but I am inextricably drawn to it. Besides, eating these nutrient-rich foods makes me feel good!

Milkweed shoot
Milkweed shoot

Field of ramps
Field of ramps

In the past few days I have been out gathering the shoots of knotweed, milkweed and other various trail-side plants. I harvested garlic mustard, stinging nettle, and ramps, with which I’ve made such dishes as forager’s spanakopita with an acorn crust or a wild greens quiche.

Wild greens spanakopita
Wild greens spanakopita

Nettle quiche
Nettle quiche

I’ll often slice my dishes into small pieces and take them to parties or gatherings, where they soon disappear. I now have all my neighbors hooked on my wild food dishes.

At the Nature Place Day Camp, campers love to go out and forage, prepare a wild foods dish from what we’ve collected, and then eat it! They usually keep coming back for more until the whole foraged dish we’ve just made is all gone.

Stinging Nettle

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and edible in our area. Although we wrote about nettles in October, they’re coming up so abundantly at this time of year we had to share the wealth and tell you about them again!

My daughter Kelly and I decided to make some calzones, using the sourdough that I had made the previous day. We wanted to make some stuffed with cheese and spinach, but as we didn’t have any spinach, we used the stinging nettle I had recently harvested at a local farm. We simmered the greens until they had the texture of cooked spinach, and this made a perfect filling.

nettle calzone

nettle calzone

Of course, there is far more to stinging nettle than being a substitute for spinach. To begin with, nettles are rich in vitamins A, C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. What’s more, they possess up to 40% protein. Of course, these nutritional facts are not foremost in our minds when we are enjoying a bowl of nettle soup or a dish of nettle greens. We are too busy experiencing their delicious taste and texture.

sauteed nettles with apples

sauteed nettles with apples

For those of you who enjoy making and consuming smoothies, you’ll find no better ingredient to add, both in terms of health and flavor.

As well as being highly nutritious, stinging nettle has potent medicinal qualities. I have often recommended nettles to friends who suffer from seasonal allergies. Those who take my advice to consume two cups of nettle tea a day (steeped for at least three hours) have experienced amazing relief, particularly when the tea is sweetened with raw, unfiltered, local honey. This tea is also wonderful for the treatment of anemia, and as a purifying tonic, helping to remove impurities from the blood.

Stinging nettle is also a regular part of the teas I brew to help with flu or cold. It is particularly good for lung issues and coughing. As a sufferer of arthritis, I will often sting the offending areas with nettles. While this can be a bit painful, it is very effective for stimulating blood flow to the area and greatly reduces the arthritic flareup.

I could fill several pages discussing the benefits of this amazing plant. If you would like regular access to nettles, I recommend starting your own patch, as it is easy to transplant from a piece of root. If you don’t have space or the wherewithal to start your own nettle patch, don’t worry, nettles grow wild almost everywhere! Viewed as a weed, they can be yours for the taking, and are of a particular tenderness this time of year as they’re beginning to grow. Just be sure to use gloves when harvesting, as using your bare hands would become quite painful (unless you’re attempting to stimulate your arthritic joints). Steeping nettles in boiling water for just a few minutes will help remove the painful stinging aspect so that you can safely enjoy their taste and nutritional value.

stinging nettle growing in the wild

stinging nettle growing in the wild

Wild & Edible Trout Lilies

If this seemingly endless winter ever goes away, the spring will bring us some of nature’s miracles.  One of my favorite spring visitors is the Trout lily.  This unassuming little woodland gem can easily be missed, as it nods downwards, hiding its shy beauty.

Trout Lily visited by foraging bee

Trout Lily visited by foraging bee

Trout lilies can be easily identified by their leaves which grow singly or in pairs in large patches, each leaf resembling the patterning found on the flanks of the Brook Trout, with brown patches against a smooth green background.  It usually takes a plant several years to build up enough energy to produce a single flower, so that in any given patch, only a few plants will flower each year.

There was a time when I was lucky enough to find a whole creekside embankment covered in these little yellow beauties.  The previous year, someone had removed a bunch of trees and bushes, opening up the area to the sun.  This caused many of the plants to bloom at the same time.  Unfortunately, a couple of years later, the entire bank was washed away by a hurricane, and they never returned.

Trout Lilies blooming outside the Garner Arts Center in Garnerville, NY

Trout Lilies blooming outside the Garner Arts Center in Garnerville, NY

Not only are Trout lilies a feast for the eyes (especially after a long bleak winter), but they are edible.  Everything from the flowers to  the corms (tuber-like roots) can be eaten.  However, I restrict my activities to photographing them and munching on the occasional leaf.  Although these are among the first flowers to appear, they can still be found in April, when the Spring Beauties pop up (also edible, by the way). They can be seen growing side by side (as in the picture).

Trout Lily growing alongside Spring Beauties

Trout Lily growing alongside Spring Beauties

With the late winter we are experiencing, don’t be surprised if you don’t find trout lilies appearing until April this year.