Posts

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.

Wild Edible Walk & Open House

Join The Nature Place this Sunday, April 17th, from Noon – 1 pm, as we’re led through the ripening woods on a wild edible walk, guided by wild food forager Paul Tappenden. We’ll learn to identify a variety of edible spring plants growing wild throughout our Nature Place campus, in what’s predicted to be perfect, 70 degree spring weather.

Stick around afterward for our open house to learn more about camp! Our open house runs between 1 and 4 pm. If you’re unable to attend the wild edibles program before hand you can just stop by anytime between 1 and 4 pm to take a tour of camp, see a slideshow from summers past, and get your camp questions answered.

Our Wild Edible Walk and open house will both meet at 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977.

Paul Tappenden holding up a burdock leaf

Paul Tappenden holding up a burdock leaf

 

 

Ballerinas in the Snow

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild in our area. This month’s plant, the humble snowdrop, IS NOT edible!

When wandering through a meadow during late winter it is not uncommon to come across a cluster of pendulous white blossoms atop delicate green foliage poking up through the snow, like a group of ethereal ballerinas. Understandably, these delightful blooms have earned themselves the popular name of snowdrops.

Snowdrop

The common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), and other related species are members of the showy Amaryllis family, and although far less bold and colorful than some of their cousins, snowdrops are still striking, as they are often the only flowers to appear in an otherwise barren winter landscape. Before the appearance of the blooms, a group of Snowdrops may be easily mistaken for a clump of grass, as its leaves are long and thin. However, once the flowers open, they demand all our attention with their elegant beauty. Even though they are cold-weather-lovers, the flowers are responsive to light and warmth, drooping mournfully on ill-lit days and opening their petals wide when the sun appears. Actually, what appear to be three long petals around the outside of the blossom are in reality sepals (the lower, protective part of a flower, usually green, which encloses the delicate bud before it opens). The shorter petals protrude from the middle of the flower like a funnel, tipped with green markings.

After the flowers have died away there remain seedpods filled with small white seeds that contain a substance which attracts ants. Foraging ants carry the tempting seed pods into their tunnels, eating all except that which is necessary to produce a new plant next year, and in this way snowdrops are able to ‘colonize’ new territory.

Snowdrops

Although inedible in any quantity, the snowdrop has some rather interesting medicinal properties. The plant contains galanthamine, an alkaloid which has proven successful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system. Snowdrop lectin is also being researched for its possible uses in treating HIV.

The plant makes a very effective insecticide against beetles, wasps and moths, however its most effective property is its ability to lift the spirits after a long  winter, and to assure us that spring is just around the corner.

Preserved Food

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden tells us what’s local and wild in and around our area. 

Now that winter is upon us, foraged foods are few and far between. So what did our ancestors do at times like this? They couldn’t pop down to the supermarket or eat out in restaurants. In fact, the vast majority had to live off their wits and experience. If they didn’t prepare for the winter months, many of them would die.

Although this prospect doesn’t face most of us today, many still need to preserve foods for use at later times. As a forager, I like to practice these survival skills, and as someone concerned about eating nutrient-rich foods, I like to ensure that I have them on hand to supplement my regular diet year round.  For this reason, I preserve the wild foods I gather in a number of different ways.

Probably the easiest method is to dehydrate them, although this doesn’t work for all foods. It also tends to rob them of flavor and texture. However, in most cases, it does preserve the nutrients. It is a particularly effective way to preserve mushrooms and roots.

Preserved foods

Preserved foods

A popular way of preserving foods is by canning, but this uses high heat, which kills many of the nutrients and requires special equipment, so I don’t go that route. A better approach all around is to ferment food.  Not only does this preserve the goodness (taste and nutrients), but it increases the natural enzymes, and often adds a delicious piquant flavor. A similar approach is to use vinegar to pickle food. I’ve found this to be the best approach with bamboo shoots, field garlic bulbs or ramps.

With nuts, seeds and acorns, I’ll often dehydrate them and grind them into flour, although with acorns, I leach the tannins out of them first.

I store a lot of things in the freezer, which, of course, is a modern luxury that has replaced the root cellar.  I could exist without one, but until that time comes, I’ll enjoy the convenience.

To freeze

To freeze

Wild and Edible Stinging Nettle

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden tells us what’s local, wild, and edible in and around our area.

Apart from the fact that stinging nettles are among the most nutrient rich foods available, they have been used medicinally for treating seasonal allergies, cold symptoms, bladder infections and chronic arthritis, along with many other ailments.  They are much prized by herbalists.  In fact, despite their tendency to sting anyone who touches them, most of the herbalists and foragers I know have planted them on their property.  I have two sizable patches in my back yard, which I tend with loving care.

Now that it is October, I’ve cut all my nettles down to the ground, hanging  the plants to dry for making teas.

I’d highly recommend starting your own patch, if you want to have their medicinal and nutritional powers at your disposal.  If you have a friend with a patch, I’m sure that he or she would happily give you a piece of root to transplant (nettles do tend to spread and need thinning).

Each year, I work with campers at The Nature Place Day Camp.  We use stinging nettles in cooking or even eat them raw.  Once cooked they can no longer sting, but eating them raw presents a bit of a challenge – a challenge that the kids love to go through as a kind of rite of passage.  There is a trick to eating them without being stung which I make sure of telling them be fore they try it.  Eating raw nettles has become a source of pride.

Nutrient-rich-stinging-nettles

stinging nettle growing wild

Nettle soup

nettle soup

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 side of nettle greens.  We are too busy experiencing their delicious flavor.

There are many recipes that call for spinach or kale in which nettles can be substituted, and several that were developed with nettles in mind.  I’ve found many versions of nettle soup online.  With the recipes that call for boiled greens, usually, twenty minutes of boiling is all that is required to produce tender results.  However, don’t throw out the brownish water that remains.  It makes a rich and tasty stock as a base for soups, having an almost meaty flavor.

Paul making nettle empanadas

Paul making nettle empanadas