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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

Wild Plants with Paul

img_7711-copyWild food forager Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild in our area.

About 10 years ago, I spotted a plant that I had only previously seen in the marshes at Cape May. It was considered invasive and not desirable, yet it was such a beautiful and exotic plant. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want it growing there. I’ve since learned exactly why.

Porcelain Berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata – quite the mouthful) was no doubt brought into this country from Asia as an ornamental plant, with little consideration for the ultimate consequences. I can understand people wanting to plant them, as the berries are quite spectacular, resembling speckled porcelain beads of green, turquoise, rich blue, purple, deep pink and white, with many tones in between.

A large cluster of berries may not have any two berries of the same color or shade. They are set against a background of dark green leaves. They can be truly exquisite. Even the leaves will often have a filigree beauty. However the vine can be very destructive.

Over time, I have watched the water’s edge of Tallman Park transformed by these relatives of wild grapes, that have now spread out into the Phragmites marshes and are advancing up the hillside into the park. The have completely overpowered trees much like Kudzu does in the South. If you find it growing in your yard. I’d suggest you dig it up before it spreads all over.

Porcelain berries are best used as a colorful garnish.

tree-sculpture

A creeping tower of porcelain berries

Wild Foods Diet

Whenever I do wild edibles presentations, I am inevitably asked how much of my diet consists of foraged foods. Of course, that greatly depends on the time of year. However, whether or not I create entire wild foods feasts or  merely graze from nature whilst out walking the dogs, I try to make sure that I include at least one wild ingredient in anything I prepare. Last weekend was a pretty typical example, and even though this is a sparse time of year for harvesting from nature, I still managed to find plenty of ingredients.

Pennsylvania bittercress

Pennsylvania bittercress

For breakfast on Saturday, I made a batch of scrambled eggs with chopped bittercress. In the afternoon, since the weather was lousy, I decided to stay home and do some baking. My wife suggested that I make apple turnovers. As usual, I used acorn flour to give them that unique nutty taste. They were so good, I didn’t expect them to last very long.


A friend stopped by while I was making them and watch me work as we chatted. He was fascinated by the acorn flour and asked whether I ever used it for making pancakes. That got me thinking – great idea for tomorrows’s breakfast.

Apple turnovers

Apple turnovers

My wife is a beef lover and had managed to acquire a couple of juicy shell steaks, which she prepared for dinner along with baked potatoes. My contribution to the meal was a salad made from Shepherd’s Purse, Chickweed and Lambsquarters, with a little sprinkle of Autumn Olive. Even though wild food is not my wife’s choice of cuisine, she is always game to try anything I make, and found the salad to be pretty tasty (particularly the Shepherd’s Purse). For dessert, we reheated a couple of apple turnovers and served them up with some fresh cream (yum!).

The next morning I cooked up a batch of acorn pancakes with raisins and Autumn Olive. They were light and fluffy and a little nutty tasting. Excellent with real maple syrup.

Acorn pancakes

Acorn pancakes

In order to keep my apple turnovers fresh I had put them into a tin with a tight fitting lid, and then left them out on the back porch (as there wasn’t room in our fridge). The following day, I decided to have one with my lunch and went out to get the tin. However, the lid was missing and the tin was empty. The darned squirrels had eaten every one, leaving not a crumb. When I told my wife, she laughed and said “Serves you right. You stole all their acorns, now they’ve taken them back from you!” I guess she has a point.