I came home tonight after a large lunch, thinking about a warm, light dinner of crockpot chicken stock with miso and chives… and discovered, in my pile of unread RSS feeds, that Sustainable Eats, in conjunction with Fat of the Land and some of your other favorite foraging blogs, is running a challenge during the month of May. My mission, which of course I chose to accept: Prepare a meal where the main ingredients are all wild and/or foraged.
I like Japanese knotweed shoots okay, but I still haven’t found the treatment that will make me love them. I keep trying, because it’s invasive and evil and so easy to pick. I want to love it. I’m going to figure out how to love it, dammit! It just hasn’t quite happened yet.
Last year’s rhubarb-inspired jam (and by “jam” I mean “sauce” because it didn’t set) was tasty, but it wasn’t quite tasty enough to overcome the fact that it looked like baby poo. I tried it on pancakes and just couldn’t do it. So I’ve been using up my knotweed sauce as a substitute for applesauce in baked goods. My third batch of this applesauce bread recipe is in the machine right now, with a cup or so of chopped fresh knotweed. The bread is good, but not great.
This year I’m trying pickles. I did two batches of brine: One was a basic white vinegar with salt and sugar for canning, the other rice vinegar with salt & sugar for fridge pickles (rice vinegar is not quite acidic enough to safely can without a pressure canner). The jars with the rice vinegar also got some sesame seeds; the jars with the white vinegar got either a red & black pepper combo, or a dessert-y spice mix of ginger, orange peel, cardamom, and angelica.
Pro tip for all y’alls: Canning things safely means cooking them, and cooking Japanese knotweed makes it mushy! So, uh, now I’m going to need to find uses for mushy pickles. I think maybe a relish for pork.
The rice vinegar fridge pickles came out rather well! They’re crunchy, and a little bit stringy since I cut the knotweed lengthwise and didn’t peel it; next time I will cut little rings. The flavor is very mild, which is okay, but I might try for something more compelling with the spicing next time.
I also did a couple batches of fridge pickles with the white vinegar brine and dessert spices. These are disappointing. Underneath all the sour, of which there is more than plenty, they’re bitter. I’m not sure how to describe the unpleasant component of the flavor other than to say it tastes like the salt is mad at me. I’m going to cross my fingers and hope it mellows out after sitting in the fridge for a few more weeks.
This is the second year in a row that my nocino has turned out to be (1) disappointing on its own, and (2) the alchemical key that opens up another disappointing bottle on my shelf.
Last year’s tricky spirits were the unaged, 100% rye Wry Moon – too harsh to use in almost any context, but far too interesting to pour down the drain – and a cheap apricot-flavored brandy. With equal parts white dog, cheap apricot, and nocino, you have an excellent “flask cocktail” to take camping or sneak into a movie with.
This year, there’s a watery, confusing rosemary shochu from Seattle’s own Sodo Spirits. There’s my own nocino, which is tannic as all hell – the walnut leaves may have been a mistake. Then there’s some Galliano, which is of course perfectly fine, and black pepper extract. 2:2:1 Shochu:Nocino:Galliano + a couple drops of black pepper extract + an orange twist, and it’s delicious.
I’m still going to let the nocino sit on the shelf for a few months longer, to see if the tannins go away. If they don’t, though, I know how I’ll be getting rid of the nocino and the shochu.
It’s been a season of putting things in jars of cheap vodka, just to see what happens. Here is what has happened:
As you might or might not recall, I left the lilac blossoms to macerate for a couple days more than planned, and wound up with a jar of, er, vegetal flavors that did not necessarily complement the lilac. Sitting on the shelf for 4 months has not made the magic happen with this. It tastes okay if you combine it with a little bit of sparkling water – a nice floral lilac flavor definitely comes through – but there are some vegetal off-notes that just won’t go away.
Next year, I will either be very careful to strain out the lilac within 24 hours, or just stick to a simple syrup. I never figured out a good cocktail for the lilac syrup but I adored the heck out of it mixed with soda water and a dash of rhubarb bitters.
I strained and filtered the nocino in early September. It’s on the shelf and won’t be ready until next spring.
This one started with about a cup of pineappleweed blossoms in a pint jar with 2 sprigs of lemon balm and a cup of sugar, filled to the top with vodka, for a week.
This has been the smash hit of my liqueur season. It’s an interesting substitute for St. Germain or other floral liqueurs in any number of cocktails, and with a bit of allspice dram and/or lemon juice it makes a deeply comforting hot toddy.
I filled a quart mason jar about 1/2 full of oregon grapes, plus a handful of sour cherries and early season blackberries and maybe a couple of cloves, a cup or two of sugar, and filled it up with London dry gin (I used Beefeater – in general you want something that is good enough to drink on its own, but isn’t too fancy. And the juniper-forward quality of a London dry style gin is much more suited to cutting through the flavor of the oregon grapes than the smooth botanical ensembles coming out of American craft distilleries).
It’s a matter of taste – my stalwart tasting assistants think it is oddly bitter, and too sweet, respectively, but I love it. It makes an excellent substitute in any cocktail recipes calling for sloe gin, with much more complexity to it than the purple treacles you can buy at the liquor store.
The random variety of lavender that I picked up at a nursery a few years ago isn’t necessarily the most-preferred culinary or liqueur-making variety, but it’s good enough. I let the lavender blossoms macerate for about a week with maybe half a cup of sugar, and the end result mixes about like similar commercial products.
I went to my local crazy herb shop last weekend and bought a few different bittering herbs: Gentian, cinchona bark, and quassia. Plus some impulse purchases. Plus the last of the dandelion roots I dug up and roasted 2 summers ago. Plus I picked some rowan berries (I gave them an overnight in my freezer to emulate a frost, and did the heat treatement described here, which made the berries a little less sour but didn’t seem to have much effect on the weird bitter notes – which is precisely what I want out of an ingredient in cocktail bitters).
I’m about to place an order for a case of little eyedropper bottles and will spend some quality time in a week or three filling them with different bitters blends.
This may or may not qualify as “getting out of hand”.
While I’m full of updates: I did get some money plant seeds, and made a mustard with them. It was yucky. So much for that idea! I’ll keep eating money plant flowers and leave the rest of the plant alone (unless I find an excuse to wrap something in a giant flavorful leaf while cooking).
I just put in a quart of nocino. The cool spring this year seems to have hurt the black walnuts, but not the English walnuts; most of my black walnut sources appeared nearly empty, and even the big one by the bike trail only yielded a handful. Either that or I’ve lost my skill at walnut-spotting – they’re really quite well camouflaged. Meanwhile, the bit of the English walnut tree that overhangs a neighbor’s fence is just as fruitful as ever.
Last year I did two batches of nocino, one using black walnuts and a smaller one with English walnuts; this year, I only found enough nuts to produce one combined batch. Since my favorite last year kept switching back and forth as the liqueurs evolved, I’m hoping that I’ll get a nice blend of flavors.
To make up for the relative paucity of walnuts, I added a couple of fragrant leaves from the black walnut tree. I might take those out of the jar sooner than the traditional 40-day infusion the baby walnuts will be getting; since they are thin, they shouldn’t need as much time and might start to contribute less-soluble more-yucky constituents that aren’t present in the nuts and husks. Then again, I might forget, and leave the leaves in the whole time. We’ll see.
I picked a bag full of money plant seed pods yesterday. I’ve been enjoying the flowers and leaves of this backyard weed since reading Rebecca Lerner’s post about it earlier this spring, and am hoping that the seeds will make an interesting and delicious mustard-like condiment. The pods I picked were varying shades of chartreuse to tan, and hadn’t yet split open; since I am impatient I put some of them in the dehydrator overnight, which took care of that. (The rest are currently spread out on a variety of juryrigged surfaces.)
Thinking I was clever, I put the dried, split pods in a paper bag, shook them up, and then smashed them up a bit. Then I went outside to try to winnow the seeds from the pods.
If Sisyphus and Maxwell’s Daemon had a love child, that child’s chore would be to winnow money plant seeds from their dried and smashed-up pods. I tried every technique I could think of – or rather, since it was raining, I tried every technique I could think of that would work underneath the covered part of my back deck – but either the seeds would bounce into the chaff bowl, or the chaff would fall into the seed bowl, or both. Usually both.
Since money plant is an aggressive weed I didn’t want to put too many seeds into my compost. I was reduced to picking them out by hand. Maybe winnowing is always this inefficient and I just have unrealistic expectations, maybe I was doing it wrong, or maybe the flattened money plant seeds are just unusually good at hiding behind their chaffy friends. Whatever, lesson learned: On the next batch I will refrain from shaking and especially from smashing the pods, and just split them one by one over a bowl.
The seeds by themselves have a mustardy-horseradishy pungency when fresh; after drying they taste bitter. If I hadn’t read about how making conventional mustard involves soaking the seeds in cold water in order to activate the enzymes that turn a bitter flavor into a pungent one, I’d be discouraged – but I refuse to be discouraged. I sank about two too many hours into these seeds to believe that the resulting condiment will be anything but amazingly delicious. Besides, I just ate some yellow mustard seeds for comparison (the sacrifices we make for knowledge!), and they are much more pungent but the bitter flavor is very similar.
The winnowing was enough work for one day. I’ll save the mustard-making for later.
Black locust trees set me up for greed. It must’ve been deliberate – the first several trees I saw held their branches just out of reach, a few letting me grab one or two flowers as a tease, a few just mocking me from the tangled hill above the parking lot.
So when I found three trees near the ground, I was in the perfect frame of mind to heedlessly stuff two grocery bags full of flowers, not entirely realizing what I’d done until I got home. If you don’t count the parts where I was jumping off a windowsill trying to pull down a particularly flower-laden branch in a back alley, the picking went very quickly. After the flowers were washed and fluffed dry, the large bowl, the giant bowl, the stockpot, and the popcorn bowl were all overflowing. Ohshit.
Over the course of the weekend I’ve gotten it down to just the giant bowl. We’ve been grabbing handfuls of the flowers to nom as we walk through the dining room (for those of you keeping track, that is Way #1) and eating them in various ways for lunch and dinner; we also managed to offload quite a few at a potluck.
As far as I’m concerned, black locust blossoms are a functional equivalent to peas, and *not* the same thing as rose petals or lilacs. Though I am grateful to The Three Foragers for their timely black locust flower post, I don’t quite understand what drives them to make custard and jelly from their flowers. I was really happy with my savory and sweet-salad uses. Concepts (they are only “recipes” in the medieval use of the word) are below the jump; suggestions for ways to use up the remaining flowers are welcome.
My yard has three lilac bushes, and a quick taste test when they started blooming proved that two of them are yucky and bitter. The third one was okay, though, so last Friday I picked the two flower-bunches I could reach, pulled off the blossoms, and gently simmered them with equal parts water and sugar to make a simple syrup.
YOU GUYS. IT TASTES EXACTLY LIKE YOU EXPECT LILAC TO TASTE.
After my initial batch of syrup I still had enough blossoms left to pack a quart mason jar. So I did that, and added a little bit of sugar, and filled the jar with vodka. After sitting overnight, it had a distinct floral flavor and aroma, but the Mister and I were running off to go bikecamping so I didn’t decant it until Sunday night.
During those two days it acquired rather more, well, I’ll call it vegetal complexity. It’s not bad, but it’s not the overpoweringly floral this-jar-is-trying-to-have-sex-with-my-nose flavor I got with the syrup, either.
I strained out the blossoms, added a bit more sugar, and stuck it on a dark shelf. A few months of patience did wonderful things to last year’s nocino, and the preceding year’s oregon grape jam, so we’ll see how it goes with the lilac. Meanwhile, I think I’ll use the rest of the blossoms for more syrup, or possibly for jelly.
When I started riding my bike again two years ago, I expected to have a few scary traffic moments and a little bit of awkwardness changing out of sweaty clothes at work. What I did not expect was that people would start complaining to me about other bicyclists they’d seen on the road – sometimes because they’d done something genuinely stupid or jerkfaced, sometimes because they’d done something completely legal – in a way that people seldom ever complained to me about other drivers: “If cyclists want my respect, they should act like it.”
Sometimes people are stupid jerks. Jeez. What do you want from me?
When this many people are asking me to defend the behavior of wholly separate unrelated individuals with whom I have only one thing in common… well, there’s clearly something going on. And I went back and forth over whether to use the word “privilege” to describe it. “Privilege” is a bit of progressive jargon – I’m using it here to describe a manifestation of a particular kind of social hierarchy, with cars on top as both the assumed default and the most prestigious mode of transportation. If you would rather think about this as “structural advantage” or “being in the majority”, or whatever, feel free to mentally substitute your favorite phrase as needed.
The overwhelming majority of cyclists in this country are also drivers; there aren’t really any widely recognized entrenched social hierarchies (“isms”) where so many people are able to move at will between “privileged” and “disprivileged” status several times over the course of a day. This list is not intended to establish a comparison between car privilege and white privilege (or male privilege, or any other systems of power and oppression). I don’t think car privilege is comparable to other systems of privilege in the magnitude of its effects, the extent to which it is entrenched in cultural institutions, or any other way, really.
I do, however, think four things:
- Human beings aren’t hugely creative about the ways in which we think about social minorities and/or exercise social power; we tend to reuse and repurpose a limited set of strategies that we carry from one set of majority/minority or privileged/disempowered groups to the next.
- U.S. culture and infrastructure provide many amenities for car drivers, often at the expense of other modes of transportation.
- Privilege checklists like this one can be useful ways to think about the ways society makes your life easier, that you might otherwise not notice.
- The overwhelming dominance of single-occupancy automobiles is an ecological disaster.
Finally, this list is blatantly U.S.-centric, because that’s where I ride my bike. Some items don’t apply to all of the U.S., either – Seattle has been pretty good about installing bike sensors at traffic lights, for example.
My process for cooking something fancypants on a lazy weekend afternoon has lately been as follows: 1) Acquire an ingredient. 2) Look it up in The Flavor Bible. 3) Become inspired (hopefully in a way that doesn’t require another trip to the store) and cook a thing.
I love the Flavor Bible. It doesn’t provide any recipes or technical instruction; instead, it draws on the world’s culinary traditions and the work of modern chefs to provide a catalog of effective flavor combinations. Turn to the entry on cantaloupe and it tells you to try lemon juice, black pepper, port, or curry powder. The entry for lavender refers you to both herbes de Provence and ras el hanout, and offers up caraway seeds as a potential substitute.
Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, the Flavor Bible does not have entries for Japanese knotweed, Oregon grape, or any of the other wild ingredients that often kick off my Step 1. (It does at least have dandelion greens, but it’s fairly obvious to me that you would treat those like collard or mustard greens, so that’s not much help.) When I get a new plant, I take the first
wild-ass guess reasonable botanical analog that I can think of.
Last weekend, after picking three grocery bags worth of knotweed shoots, I looked up the bible entry for rhubarb. It told me to pair it with cardamom and orange, so I made a big batch of knotweed jam with cardamom and blood orange zest. Delicious jam success!
Then this morning, I read a post with several ideas riffing on the theme of lemons, instead of rhubarb. Oh man! How obvious is that in retrospect, and how jealous am I that I didn’t think of it first! It makes me wonder how many other excellent analogs and combinations I am missing while I’m grooving away in my little rut of Oregon grape PBJ and nettle-clam-alfredo pizza.
Once you’ve gotten over the novelty of a wild food and incorporated it into your regular harvest, how do you break that routine to explore its potential? I can only wade through the same 3 Internet recipes for dandelion petal bread, sorbet, and jelly so many times – life is short.
This is, of course, why they pay the Herbfarm folks (and other professional chefs) with real cash money. Maybe someone could just mechanically index a bunch of old Herbfarm menus and publish the results as a sort of cut-rate Wild Flavor Bible.