Chaladnik (Belarusian oxalic acid soup)

So the other night I was reading this cool open-access research paper on the ethnobotany of Belarus. As you might expect, (1) Belarusians in the 19th Century made a lot of things into soup! and (2) many of these older wild food traditions have died out, particularly when it comes to wild greens.

Anyway, one of the wild green culinary traditions that’s still thriving in modern Belarus is the use of Rumex species to make a sour soup. Rumex is a large genus, including various kinds of docks and sorrels. The paper didn’t mention which species in particular were most popular (other than the modern adoption of R. confertus, a non-native species) but did mention that the sourness came from the greens, as opposed to other traditional sour soups where the souring agent is a lactic acid fermentation. And the Internet quickly yielded a recipe and a name: Chaladnik. Then more names – apparently this soup is more commonly known as schav and it is a part of cuisines throughout Eastern Europe. Why was I not informed?

I ignored the more-bitter less-sour broad-leaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius) in my backyard in favor of the sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), and threw in some wood sorrel (Oxalis somethin or other) since it is soured by the same chemical. (Oxalic acid, by the way, will give you kidney stones if you eat too much of it. It’s present in moderate concentrations in many common foods like rhubarb, purslane, and spinach, all of which I adore, because oxalic acid is the most delicious kidney stones ever.)

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Pickled Broom Buds

pickled Scotch broom buds on a bagel with cream cheese
Scotch broom is a Class B noxious weed that grows in several convenient locations along the bike trail, so I was excited to learn that the flower buds are edible. Traditionally they are pickled and used like capers.

If I ever find myself in possession of more time than money, or in charge of a couple of children who need to be kept out of trouble, I will make these again. (I used this recipe and added a few mint leaves to the brine.) Otherwise, well. I picked broom buds for as long as I could stand it on two different afternoons. The first time, I barely got anything, because I was trying too early – there were only a couple of flowers in bloom per plant. The second time, when the bushes were about halfway covered in yellow, was more productive. There were plenty of buds on the branches, but it was still painstaking work to pick them – it took me maybe 45 minutes to gather enough for two bagels.

They were nice bagels! The pickled buds were pleasantly toothsome and tasted mostly of pickle-brine with an undertone of pea. They just weren’t quite a labor-intensive delicacy level of delicious. I might try this pickle idea again with some small peas, or possibly black locust flower buds, which are just starting to pop around here and grow on convenient racemes (if you can find a short enough tree).

Cleavers Cordial

I only learned how to identify cleavers (Galium aparine) this spring, after reading about it on some other foraging blogs.

Usually, when I learn a new plant it takes me a year or so of scouting around before I’m able to spot it from a distance and/or from my bike. Not so with cleavers! Three weeks after identifying the weird clingy thing in my weed patch I was seeing it everywhere.

I’m very sorry I didn’t learn it earlier, because cleavers is an A++ worthwhile plant. Not only is it easy to find, it is easy to harvest – grows in big swaths, far enough above the ground to stay clean, does not require any fiddly treatment post harvest – and delicious. With my first haul I made cleaver lemonade, which seems to be the standard treatment: Whiz the cleavers up in a blender and strain out the juice (or use a juicer, if you are so endowed), add the juice and zest from a couple of lemons, sweeten to taste. Drink 50/50 with club soda. Mine also had a bit of chickweed in it as they were growing together and I was too lazy to detangle them.

I took a growler of the stuff to a party over the weekend. Many people declined to try it – it’s a very lurid green and green planty-tasting juice is not everyone’s thing. Those who did try it, liked it; as one friend said, “It tastes like green plants only it also tastes good”.

Another friend offered to buy me brunch in exchange for the secret of my cleavers patch. Cleavers patches being only slightly more jealously guarded than Himalayan blackberry patches, I of course offered to just tell her, but she insisted on buying me brunch anyway and making a story out of how she got my secret. Sometimes the point of foraging is not to just have the delicious free food. Sometimes the point and the fun is having a good story to tell when you are serving the delicious free food to your friends. And there’s a marketing lesson for you!

The Jack Cleaver

a greenish cocktail
Sometimes, when you go to make a cocktail there is nothing in the liquor cabinet but applejack, 4 bottles of whisky too good to mix with, and eleventy-billion liqueurs.

This was an acceptable cocktail, the celery bitters are a lovely complement to the cleavers, but it would’ve been better with gin.

How I Don’t Eat Dandelions

I’ve been meaning to participate in Butter‘s Wild Things Roundup ever since I discovered her blog last fall, but the themes have never quite coincided with my cooking. Until now! This month’s theme is dandelions.

My big dandelion experiment for this year is the mead. But in honor of the roundup I thought I’d do a worth it / not worth it rundown of past results. The whole dandelion is edible and I’ve tried everything but the seeds. The emerging theme is that dandelions are great as part of a larger whole, but I’m not so into them as a stand-alone dish.

bedraggled dandelion blossom with raindrops

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Dandelion Mead

I’m blogging about tonight’s mead-making because the #%@^*! must won’t cool down fast enough for me to pitch the yeast and go to bed. Someday I will learn not to start brewing after 8pm but that day is not today.

I’m following something like Jack Keller’s recipe #2. Except that when I say “following” I don’t really mean it – for one thing, when I stopped by the homebrew shop they had some enticing jars of local honey on the counter and oh, hey there impulse purchase, it’s nice to see you in my bag! So I’m making a mead. 2 quarts dandelion petals, 3 lbs fireweed honey, zest and juice from 3 oranges + 1 lemon. Smack pack of dry mead yeast + nutrients. Continue Reading »

Chutney: the Japanese Knotweed Killer App

This is my third year of doggedly cutting down Japanese knotweed shoots, and I have finally – finally! – found a delicious thing to do with them. Like, delicious enough that I’m trying to find room in my schedule to pick another batch of knotweed before the short season is over.

Chutney!

I’ve never been a big chutney-eater. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked it, I just never got in the habit. Having a bunch of used-once jars go bad in the fridge has provided some powerful negative reinforcement, keeping me in a low-condiment equilibrium.

That might change. This shit is amazing. Also, I’ve been eating more Protein Slab sorts of dinners lately (my body seems to like it when I eat protein) so there is a newly open niche in my cooking. Also also, my half-assed random spice combination worked brilliantly, which means either I am a genius or there is a generous and forgiving range of spice combinations that will taste delicious as knotweed chutney.

I cribbed the general concept from some folks at McGill. Toast your spices (mustard seed, peppercorns, cloves, I had some fenugreek, red pepper flakes, etc.) in a little bit of oil. When they’re fragrant, toss in a bit of salt and an onion; caramelize the onion. Add a bunch of knotweed, a cup of vinegar, a cup of sugar. Cook down. It’ll taste like the spice mix more than anything else, but the fruity oxalic tang of the knotweed is an excellent complement.

If you slice the knotweed crosswise into thin rings, you don’t need to worry about peeling it. The fibers will still be there but if they’re cut short enough it doesn’t matter. Peeling is annoying and roughage is good for your colon.

The one drawback is that the chutney, like many other forms of cooked knotweed, is a strikingly unpleasant shade of baby poo yellow. I’m not sure how to fix that – adding turmeric only made it worse. Maybe a beet? Or eating in a darkened room?

Japanese Knotweed Straws

We’ve hit the inflection point of spring. Everything is growing, toughening, coming into bloom and vanishing.
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This will probably always be my favorite thing to do with Japanese knotweed: Puncture the internal septa with a chopstick or kabob skewer and use it as a straw. Nibble on it while drinking. It’s perfect with a gin & tonic.

Also part of today’s harvest:

  • Half a gallon of dandelion petals, currently in a bucket of water, waiting to become wine.
  • A scant handful of broombuds – I might’ve been a bit early for these. The very first few full flowers were out, but most of the buds were still small, hard to see and pick. When raw they have a very distinct flavor that I’m coming to think of as “pea family” – like if you let a sweet pea get old and starchy. Haven’t tried pickling them yet.
  • A sunburn! Just a little one. It feels so nice to be a Vitamin D autotroph again.
  • Blackberry and raspberry leaves, which I’m fermenting for tea.
  • Blackberry and raspberry shoots. The raspberry shoots aren’t bad, but I only had a small handful – not enough for real culinary experimentation. The Himalayan blackberry shoots are sadly much less tasty than any of the other Rubus species I’ve tried so far – not intolerable, but markedly more bitter/astringent. Between that and the vigor of the thorns I think they’re probably a famine food, but maybe I’ll give ‘em one more try cooked.
  • Way more knotweed than just a straw. I filled the dehydrator, and now it’s time to stop blogging and make a knotweed-apple pie for tomorrow.

Why Boner Jokes Aren’t Funny (Even When They Are)

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

Horsetail shoots taste mild and pleasant. Various of my compatriots likened the flavor to:

  • Green onions
  • Asparagus
  • Green beans
  • Apples
  • 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.
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By the time I realized this picture was out of focus, they were eaten.