Archive for May, 2008

Pokeweed: the Fugu of the Vegetable Kingdom

May 25, 2008

Well, it’s all uphill from here. When I decided to explore the food options growing wild in my area, I knew that I would, sooner or later, have to cowboy up and try pokeweed. Mature pokeweed plants are poisonous, but the sprouts, when gathered young enough, have very little of the toxin in them. The cut-off for when they are safe to eat is generally in the 8″ tall range, but it’s a little fuzzy depending on your source. I never thought I’d be one of those people who died doing something stupid, but I was reconsidering as I ate my poke sprouts. I would really prefer to leave the phrase “poisonous weeds” out of my obituary, I guess.

Finding Poke

Poke is really easy to find in the summer, when it’s full grown, but quite difficult to spot during its edible phase, which is around May in the Great Lakes region. When mature, It’s one of the more spectacular weeds in the temperate zones, with thick, purplish stalks, big oblong leaves, and clusters of purple-black berries. I don’t have my digital camera running yet, but there are some pictures on Wikipedia:

Poke Pics

It grows along the edges of forests in disturbed areas. I found my patch alongside a parking lot, but have seen other specimens along railroad tracks and in vacant lots. It’s a perennial, so if you can find some in the summer, note the location so that you can return in the spring. The stalks die in the fall, but they usually remain through the harvest period. I found my patch by looking for last year’s dead, sun-bleached stalks, and harvested the new growth coming up beneath them.

Harvesting Poke

As mentioned, I avoided any sprouts that were taller than 8 inches or so. In each cluster, there was a range of height, from 4″ to 16″, and sticking with the mid-sized sprouts worked best. I chose my sprout, traced it back to ground level with my hand, and bent the stalk until it snapped off. This is similar to the method for harvesting asparagus by hand, and assures that you’re getting the most tender part of the sprout. I gathered about a dozen sprouts, enough for a single serving.

Preparing Poke

Upon getting the pokeweed sprouts home, I pulled off all of the leaves, leaving the little cluster of baby leaves at the top. These leaves can be prepared as greens, but I don’t have a good greens recipe, and there weren’t many leaves, anyway. I tried peeling the stems, as advised by my guidebook, but they were too tender, and the skin kind of just rubbed off. I did use a paring knife to shave off any part of the stem with a purplish hue, in the possibly-mistaken assumption that the color announces the presence of the toxin.

Once they were cleaned, I cooked them just like beans, asparagus, or broccoli–in a pan, with a little bit of water, and steamed until bright green and tender. A dab of butter and a little salt, and they were served as a side dish.

Eating Poke

It tasted very much like a very young green bean, or a mild asparagus, or the white stalk of broccoli. Kind of a general “young vegetable” taste. It was not a culinarily transcendent experience, but it was also not very foreign–this just tasted like an everyday vegetable. I was expecting something out of the ordinary. I was more relieved than dissappointed, though. Making a lifestyle shift towards local eating is a lot easier without any strong shifts in taste. It did take a bit more time than asparagus to prepare–pulling off the leaves is a little time-consuming. It probably takes about as long as it takes to prepare a head of broccoli.

I will definitely be eating pokeweed sprouts again next spring, although I may someday get to the point at which my asparagus patch is producing enough spears to fill that part of the spring menu. If I find a particularly fruitful poke patch this summer, I may attempt to freeze a quantity of poke, as it seems like it would make a great frozen vegetable–it’s got enough substance to not get mushy, and a pleasant enough flavor that it could be slipped into a lot of dishes.

Local Food and Frugality

May 18, 2008

Well, it has been more than a month since my last entry. As it happens, gardening, foraging, and my chosen career all overlap in terms of “busy season”, so my foraging and weblog entries have suffered. Rather than an immeidate return to the chronological style I’ve been using, I thought I’d put out a post relative to the recent focus on economic hardship, particularly food prices.

Here in Michigan, money trouble is an 8+ year old story, but rising prices for food have a great impact on the local-food lifestyle. I don’t pay close enough attention to per-pound prices at the grocery store to see how prices have been affected, but it’s probable that small-scale local farms will be less able to compete with global-scale producers. It will be interesting to see if rising transportation costs de-centralize/re-localize food production, but that’s a long-term re-infrastructuring thing. In the short term, it’s safe to expect that local food will become more expensive, even relative to long-distance food. On the other hand, the local food lifestyle offers many ways to cut expenses.

Growing from Seed
It’s kind of a no-brainer, but sensible gardening can have a serious impact on your food bill. It’s hard to argue with the investment-return of a pack of zuchini seeds–$1.79 for a packet of seeds that will yield pounds and pounds of vegetables. A lot of the food crops that grow easily from seed are still pretty cheap at the grocery store, so it probably doesn’t make economic sense to grow green beans or broccoli, but some of the more difficult-to-transport vegetables are starting to become worth growing–lettuce, spinach, red peppers, etc. Splurging on fertilizers or rototillers will easily eliminate any savings, so use that compost pile and garden fork to get growing.

Grocery Store Leftovers
There are a couple of kitchen tricks that will save a little money here and there. When I buy green onions, I cut off the bottom 1/2 inch or so (the part with the roots, and a little bit of the white part) and plant it in any open soil in the yard. I put it in the the top part is just above the soil level. In a month or so, it will have put up enough new growth to be pulled up and used again. Since I can never use all of the green onions in a bunch before they go bad, having them waiting in the garden is ideal.

Dried beans, which can be purchased for less than a dollar a pound, can be planted in place of bush beans. All beans are more or less identical in the immature/green bean stage, and any reduction in germination rate is overcompensated for by the fact that dried beans cost about 100 times less than bean seeds. Plant them an inch or two deep, keep them watered, and harvest in 60-75 days. They will crop at one time, so stagger your plantings if you want a steady stream for fresh eating. In addition, beans act as a host to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, so you can improve your soil’s fertility while you’re growing your grocery-store beans.

It’s generally not profitable to grow potatoes, as they are still really cheap at the grocery store. I’ve had good results, however, sticking shrivelled or sprouty potatoes in a clear spot in the garden (sometimes even in the compost bin). After they start to bloom, I’ll poke around for some tender baby potatoes. They might not stave off starvation, but it’s a nice way to recover the food value of past-prime potatoes.

I’m sure I’m forgetting some, so I may come back and edit as they occur to me. I mentioned garlic in an earlier post, but that’s another easy one–buy a clove of garlic (those of us in the midwest will have to go to the farmer’s market to get “hardneck” garlic, which grows through the cold), break it up, and stick it in the ground in the fall.

Begged, Borrowed, and Propigated

Looking at slightly-to-significantly more long-term propositions, a decent collection of perennial food plants can be assembled through persistence and good timing. Plants like raspberries, rhubarb, and a lot of herbs spread pretty quickly. Since many gardeners buy as much as they need to fill a space, within a few years they have more than they have room for. A well-timed offer to dig and divide a friend or neighbor’s mint, chives, or brambles is mutually beneficial, and before you know it, you’ll be looking for someone to take a few clumps of mint off your hands. All of these plants, particularly raspberries, are big-ticket items in the produce department. They may not reach full production for a year or two, but you can’t argue with the price.

Grapes are another easy-to-acquire plant. If you don’t know anyone with a grapevine running rampant over an abandoned shed somewhere in the backlot, the plants are pretty common along riverbanks or along the edges of neglected lots. The maple-like leaves, shaggy stems, and coiley tendrils are familiar, and should be easy to spot. I’ve detailed the propogation of grape vines in another entry, so I’ll spare the review, but my cuttings are growing happily, and will provide me with some grape leaves this year. I’ll have to wait a few years for fruit.

Strawberries, for some reason, have not been as easy for me to find for free. They spread readily, but perhaps not as agressively as raspberries or mint. I had to purchase my strawberry plants, but I did so in July, when they were marked down to $.50 a plant. That late in the season, all of the plants had put out at least one little baby strawberry plant, so that I got well over two dozen plants, but paid for fewer than ten. After potting up the babies, called “runners”, I had a pretty decent collection of strawberries lining my front sidewalk. The following year, they started producing, as well as sending out more runners. I had to repeat this trick to get a second variety of strawberries, but otherwise my strawberry patch has been spreading cost-free for a few years now.