Once upon a time, when I was a baby geologist overseeing my very first municipal water well installation, there was a problem with the rig and the drillers and I all stood around yakking for a bit while we waited for some widget to arrive.
These drillers worked a 3 weeks on, 10 days off kind of schedule, and they were due to go home as soon as we finished the job. This particular well wasn’t finished until we hit bedrock, so as the on-site geologist it was actually my job to say when their vacation started. So we were joking around about how long it’d be before I let them leave, and what they were going to do when they got home. I was the only woman on site – women geologists aren’t rare, but drilling is much more male-dominated than software development and I’ve never actually worked with a female driller or drillhand.
One of the items on the hilarious agenda was for each of the drillers to stop off at a different driller’s place on the way home, to be shown a good time by the lady of the house.
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Horsetail shoots taste mild and pleasant. Various of my compatriots likened the flavor to:
- Green onions
- Green beans
- A non-flavor that would soak up other flavors
Despite our collective inability to describe what exactly it was we were tasting, we all liked it. After we’d all tried a nibble of raw shoots, I steamed the remainder for a few minutes, tossed in some bacon crumbs and fancy salt, and blessed it with a squeeze of lemon.
By the time I realized this picture was out of focus, they were eaten.
I picked about 8 gallons of nettles on Sunday.
When I go nettle-picking, I usually wear the same thin-ish full-fingered gloves I’ve been biking in most of the winter. Nettle stingers aren’t that long, so as long as I’m reasonably careful about grabbing from the undersides of the leaves, I don’t get stung. Much.
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From the garden today: Dandelion greens, bittercress, chickweed, a bit of fennel. I have always liked the taste of bittercress, but never used it as a salad green until I learned that there is no such thing as the salad police. Nobody will come to arrest me if I just pinch the roots off the bottom and chuck the rest of the plant in there whole rather than breaking it down and discarding the central stem, remaining roots, etc. Quite a load off my mind and completely changes the effort:reward ratio.
There was also plenty of henbit (Lamium mumblety-something, might’ve been purple deadnettle), which I nibbled thoughtfully but otherwise did not eat. I still haven’t figured out why anyone bothers with henbit except as a famine food.
The very beginning of spring is a nice time for dandelions – the young plants have tender greens, and the overwintered plants still have fat roots. I dug up a pan full of roots, cleaned them, and promptly burned them to a crisp. Lesson learned: The time to take the dandelion roots out of the oven is before you notice that the whole house smells amazing. The final stages happen very quickly. There are more dandelions, but not conveniently in the garden beds; really, I can probably wait until fall. I think the dandelion brown ale concept that’s tingling in my brain will benefit from a little more experience homebrewing with normal ingredients, anyway. (I’m only on my second-ever batch of beer and still have some technique to work out.)
Continuing my halfhearted gesture at taming the backyard invasive species slugfest, I ripped up some English ivy. I stripped the leaves from the vines using the backscratcher the Mr. made me several years ago as a learning-to-weld project – it’s a bunch of thick wires welded together in a sort of fan shape. All it needs is a thicker handle, the better to grasp between my knees, and it’s the perfect vine-stripping tool. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with the stuff, having never made a proper basket before, but all the cool kids are making bike baskets.
Like other foragers watching the last traces of winter quietly fade, I’m giving the hairy eyeball to my pantry, trying to eat up the old food to make room for the fresh.
This is a good time to check in on my own eating habits. Sometimes I let the novelty of a new food, or the ease of harvest of a familiar one, lure me into a cupboardfull of food that I don’t really enjoy.
So, below the fold: What I overmade, notable successes that I can’t make enough of, and what’s on the to-try list for this spring.
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Top off with hot water and garnish with a lemon slice and/or sprig of fresh thyme.
I’m beginning to think that a couple of 5-6 oz. mugs might be worth the space they would take up in my barware cabinet. Drinking a toddy out of the large mugs I use for coffee feels a bit silly.
Some friends raise meat rabbits; I went over today to help with a slaughter. I didn’t quite kill a bunny, but I did see it hopping around right before I watched it die, and I peeled its skin off with my bare hands while the body was still warm.
Throw that one in the bucket with losing my virginity as a completely overhyped rite of passage. I mean, it’s cool to learn a new skill – I’d never gutted a mammal before – but I’m not like become Death the destroyer of worlds. I don’t think I even leveled up in locavore. (I need 159 XP! Better go pick some cottonwood buds for salve, before they leaf out.)
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When I initially tried my first batch of this liqueur I was thinking it’d be a good replacement for sloe gin.
Lesson learned: Never trust your first impressions. Sometimes, you only find the real value in something after you’ve gone through most of the bottle. Oregon-grape gin has earned a permanent place in my liquor cabinet not as a sloe gin substitute – the more I tried that, the more I thought that actually it’s too strongly flavored and not sweet enough – but in its own right as a unique “sweet” component that won’t dilute the bitter/herbal-ness of aperitifs.
What sealed the deal was realizing that in the right context (by which I usually mean bourbon) it brings out a smoky flavor – almost but not quite like rinsing the glass with Laphroaig. I do not understand this at all, since I’ve never found a smoky or peaty flavor in anything else I’ve made with oregon grape, but I’m not going to complain.
It also loves tequila and mezcal. Try a Northwest margarita, using oregon-grape gin instead of triple sec.
I’m starting to think about what might happen when the weather gets slightly better. What might happen is bike trips – in particular, bike trips with distillery visits carefully positioned at rest points.
I was surprised that I couldn’t find a complete map of Washington state’s many craft spirits producers. It was dirt simple to take the Liquor Control Board’s license lists, plop them into a Google Docs map gadget, and hey presto! It’s a map of all the distilleries in the state!
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Every year I ignore Christmas until just after winter solstice… and then get a sudden case of the festives on the 22nd or 23rd which leads me to buy whole birds from the supermarket and bake large batches of cookies while listening to the exact same carols I have been trying to avoid.
This year I also tried to eat a Christmas tree. Or some needles, anyway. Douglas firs are one of the most common commercial Christmas trees, they’re common as dirt around Seattle and the one in my backyard conveniently dropped a nice-sized branch just as I came down with Christmas itch.
Needles from anything in the pine family – which includes Douglas firs, true firs, pines, spruces, hemlocks, and larches/tamaracks – are fine to nibble in small quantities, and many make good herbs. Some taste more lemony-fresh, some taste more resinous, some are less delicious than others; the best way to find out is to start chewing. But don’t put random evergreens in your mouth until you can tell the difference between the pine family and the yew family – yews are toxic! If you would prefer to positively identify a Douglas fir, look for the three-pointed bracts on the cones.
So this Christmas we had Douglas fir duck, Douglas fir gravy, and some Douglas fir-tangerine cookies with Douglas fir icing.
Lessons learned so far:
- Douglas fir is an interesting possibility in any context where you might otherwise think of using rosemary or lemon. It’s less assertive than rosemary, so if you’re substituting in a recipe, you should use extra.
- Most sources tell you to use just the fresh tips. Older needles also taste good, but they tend to catch a little bit in your throat, even if you’ve minced them. This isn’t a disaster but it is annoying; that is why humans created food processors and blenders. Puree, puree, puree.
- I don’t really understand this one but Douglas fir + tangerine = love. It’s like lemon + rosemary or orange + basil.
The Douglas fir gravy, incidentally, was a surprise hit. It started as a simple duck giblet gravy, with goose fat instead of butter for the roux. And then I realized I’d added too much flour to it… so I dug around in the freezer for additional stock. Way too much flour. A lot of extra stock. So it ended as a full sauce pan of chicken-rabbit-pheasant-duck giblet gravy, with caramelized onions and a generous handful of Douglas fir needles. We ate it Christmas morning over biscuits cut out with cookie cutters.