Archive for the ‘frugality’ Category

Easy Pickings: Foraging on Farms

August 18, 2010

This entry is not about gleaning, which is picking over a field to pick up what the harvesters missed.  For information on gleaning in the present day, there’s an interesting if slow-moving documentary called The Gleaners and I.

Farm foraging is the practice of finding abandoned farms and searching their grounds for horticultural holdouts from the past.  Old farms are pretty easy to spot–the sagging barns, sun-bleached houses, and rusted sheds are a pretty common sight in the rural corners of the midwest.  Until recently, farmers lived where they grew, and kept kitchen gardens in addition to the fields, where they grew their main crop.  Although a garden bed can be completely weeded over after a month or two of neglect, some of the other garden plantings can continue growing a generation after the farm was shuttered.

On a recent hiking trip, my family spent some time passing though several abandoned homesteads.  Close to the houses, we found apples, good enough to eat out of hand (a rare quality in non-commercial apples) and big, sweet blackberries with very few seeds.  The apple tree was probably planted several decades ago as part of an orchard, and the blackberries had probably spread far from their original spot–they’re notoriously invasive.

I would expect that other farms still have asparagus patches, grapes, rhubarb, raspberries, gooseberries, and other long-lived perennials growing, long after their planters have moved on.  Other self-propagators, like sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, nasturtium, and squash may even be sprouting year after year.

Kitchen gardens were usually placed as close as possible to the house, to make it easy to harvest as necessary.  If the house is still standing, the garden should be easy to find.  If not, look for the foundation–it’s likely grown over with weeds, but should still be standing.  While you’re working around the foundation, don’t forget to look for those edible ornamentals, like roses and daylilies.

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Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

Black Walnuts: Tedious but Delicious

September 21, 2009

Foraging will always take more time than preparing store-bought food, but black walnuts may be the most time-consuming wild food I’ve tried.  Finding and collecting them can go quickly, but the prep work (and the eventual yield) give walnuts one of the highest time-to-food value ratios.  For me, it’s worth it, but you might want to try these out on a small scale before you commit to bushels and bushels of walnuts.

Finding Walnuts

I’ll find walnuts while hiking now and then, but when I’m looking to harvest them, I’ll drive through some of the older neighborhoods in town.  Black walnuts are generally despised as shade trees, but a few people still have them in their yards.  You can usually see their driveways and patios littered with the blackened husks, and all but the most paranoid neighbors would love to have you gather a bushel or two of nuts.  I’ve also had good luck asking on local online message boards.  The greasy, round, rotting walnuts can pose a serious safety risk, so a lot of people are grateful to have someone come over and pick them up.

Harvesting Walnuts

Harvesting is easy.  I bring a bucket, bushel, or basket and start picking them up off the ground.  I’ve never tried to pull them off the tree, as they generally fall off when they get ripe.  I try to be selective, and just get the freshly-fallen, completely green fruits.

Preparing Walnuts

This is where it gets difficult.  First, you need to remove the husks.  The walnut juice will stain your clothes and skin, so wear gloves and grubby clothes.

I start with a patio stone and a sturdy pair of boots, grinding each walnut under the heel until the green part falls off and I’m left with the familiar-looking nut.  I’ve read accounts of people spreading them over the driveway and driving over them, but I find the monotonous and violent boot method soothing.  It’s important to get the husks off as soon as possible, as they begin to decompose, which causes the nuts to spoil.  The husks will be really wormy.  The grubs are disgusting but won’t affect the nut.

Once they are husked, the nuts need to be rinsed.  Dump them in a bucket of water.  I’ve read (but not confirmed) that the ones that float are spoiled.  I discard them, but only after making sure I’ve removed all of the husk–every so often, a bit of the especially-bouyant husk will be holding up a nut that would otherwise sink.

After they’ve been husked, I hang them in a mesh basket from the clothesline.  Squirrels will seek them out extremely aggressively, so be sure they’re secure.  Once they’re dry, I put the nuts in the freezer, or in a cool place if the freezer’s full–The nutmeat is really oily, so low temperatures keep it from going rancid.

The nuts need to be broken up to remove the meat, and black walnuts are far harder than the commercial (English) version.  A nutcracker won’t do it, but a hammer will.  A solid strike at the pointy end will split it in two, but they’ll need to be busted into quarters or smaller to get the nuts out.  If available, a bench vise works way better than a hammer.  I put them in so that the seam of the nut is perpendicular to the face of the vise and crank down until it cracks.  I’ll crack nuts until the vise handle starts to hurt my palm, then put it all back in the freezer until I want to get back into it.

When they’re cracked, the last step is getting the meat out.  If you’ve cracked the nuts into the quarters, you should be able to pull out fairly big chunks of nutmeat with a nut pick, awl, or toothpick.  I put all of the meat in a jar and put it in the freezer.

Eating Walnuts

Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than commerical walnuts, which makes them ideal for baked goods.  I treat them like a precious commodity, having gone through a lot of work to procure them, but they work well in zuchinni bread, carrot muffins, and brownies.  They are better the sooner you use them, so be generous.  I love the flavor, and they are one of the few nuts available that are locally grown, but they are an aquired taste.  My wife tolerates them, and others don’t like them at all.  As I said, try out a few before investing the time.

More on Mayapples

August 22, 2009

I expressed my love for mayapples last year, when I first tried them.  Since early this spring, when their umbrella-leaves first started to appear, I began plotting my harvest on a massive scale.  I’ve picked about a bushel of the fruits (not including a false start noted in the comments on my previous entry), but now I don’t know what to do with them.  I’ve got them in a plastic bag, and I eat a few out of hand for breakfast as they ripen.  It’s an inconvenient ordeal–I cut it open, suck out the pulp, then use my teeth and tongue to filter out the seeds, which I spit out.

I’ve tried chopping the fruits and running them through a food mill, but this pushes through a lot of the bitter rind, which gives the resulting pulp an unpleasant taste.  I’ve also tried running just the pulp through the food mill, but the pulp sticks to the seeds, and very little goes through.  This is where I’m stuck.  They are a delicious fruit, but I can only eat a few of them at a time, and it’s hardly worth the effort.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d like to hear them.  All of the internet sources I’ve looked at recommend running them through a food mill, but no one mentions how to deal with the rind.

Mulberries

June 23, 2009

I thought eating mulberries was a universal childhood experience, but my wife and I found a mulberry tree on a walk, and it had never occurred to her to eat them.  With that in mind, I submit this entry.

Finding Mulberries
I don’t remember ever seeing a mulberry tree “in the wild”—they’re always along sidewalks, in backyards, etc.  They are medium-sized trees, topping out around 15-25 feet tall, with a weirdly lobed leaf.  They are most easily identified by their berries, which look a lot like raspberries and start out white, then turn pink, and wind up nearly black.

Harvesting Mulberries
I read (I think in Stalking the Wild Asparagus) about a method for harvesting mulberries.  By placing a big sheet under a tree and shaking the tree, all of the ripe berries will come loose and land on the sheet.  I did not have this option available, as the tree I was picking from was growing alongside a parking lot.  I brought a bowl, picked berries by hand, and put them into the bowl in a shallow layer.  If they get stacked up too high, the ones on the bottom get crushed by the ones on the top.

Preparing Mulberries
When picked, the little stem stays on the fruit.  You can leave it on.  Although they can be eaten out of hand, or right off the tree, they are best mixed with other fruits.  Smoothies, fruit salads, and cobblers are all great uses for mulberries.

Eating Mulberries
My copy of The Joy of Cooking suggests that mulberries are best left for children, and I’d agree that they aren’t great by themselves.  They have a bland sweetness that is easy to get sick of.  Mixed with other fruit, though, they’re delicious.

Stinging Nettles

May 15, 2009

Finding Nettles

Although nettles have a fairly distinctive appearance—they are very mint-like, with dark green leaves sprouting off of squarish stems—they are by far most easily identified by their sting.  When I thought I found a patch of nettles, I brushed the back of my hand over them and waited to feel the sting.  Sure enough, a warm, throbbing pain confirmed their identity.  I’m not sure where it is usually located, as I don’t see it often, but the patch I tested was located in a forest along a path.  It is best harvested when it is young, in spring, but, according to my field guides, the new growth at the tips can be harvested through the summer.

Harvesting Nettles

First off, some protection is called for.  I tried to use a plastic bag to grab the plant while I cut it with my clippers.  This did not work in the least—I inevitably brushed against other leaves while moving in with the clippers, and got stung routinely as I harvested.  Next time, I’ll use gloves.  Since I knew I’d be cooking them down, I harvested a lot—a plastic grocery bag full.  I stuck with harvesting the top of each sprout, cutting down 8-12”.

Preparing Nettles

The stingers need to be disarmed before cooking the nettles.  Fortunately, this is an easy fix.  I boiled up a big pot of water, and dunked the nettles in long enough for them to wilt—just a few seconds.  I use the boiling water to kill weeds in the cracks of my driveway, but that part is optional.
Once they’ve been dipped, the nettles are ready to go.  I dumped them on a cutting board, chopped them up, and added them to a palak paneer with some home-grown spinach and home-made cheese.  I imagine it could be used in any sort of recipe calling for cooked greens.

Eating Nettles

I’ve never really figured out how to cook proper Southern greens, though I try every few days throughout turnip season.  If I had a good recipe, nettles would be my greens of choice—they stand up to a good bit of cooking without getting slimy.  In the relatively low-fat palaak paneer, they even came out a little dry.  I wrung them out after dipping them in the boiling water, and that was probably overkill.  Apart from the dryness, the texture was great, though.  The flavor was, well, comparable to any other kind of greens.  I’ll definitely be returning to my new nettles patch, and probably freezing a bit before it gets too tough.

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame I: Asparagus

April 22, 2009

Even if you don’t like asparagus, it holds a special place in the in-season/local eating diet.  After a winter eatng cellared roots, squash, cold-frame greens, and frozen or canned vegetables, asparagus is the first real vegetable of the season in Great Lakes states.  It’s an especially fun vegetable to grow, as it sticks out of the ground looking exactly like itself.  Unlike, say, tomatoes or cucumbers, which grow for months before they yield the familiar fruits, asparagus is recognizable from the moment it sticks out of the ground.

Growing Asparagus
Asparagus is a perennial—it regrows from the roots every year—which makes it a lot more work to get started.  The easiest way to get started is to purchase crowns in the spring.  Soak them in a bucket of water while digging a trench about 8” deep.  For best results, dig some compost into the bottom of the trench—you won’t be able to till this area in the future, so make soil improvements while you can.  It’s recommended that you spread out the roots at the bottom of the trench, but in my experience, the roots tend to break off.  I usually put them in on their side, as the crowns will grow into a position they are comfortable in.
When the crowns are in place, backfill the trench about half way and water well to settle the soil.  When the asparagus begins to peek out of the soil, continue backfilling and watering until the trench is filled in and the asparagus is growing above ground.  Keep it well watered and weeded for the first year while the asparagus gets established.
It’s generally recommended that you let the asparagus grow for two or three years before harvesting so that the plants can build strength and focus on root growth.  I was able to get a few spears in my second year (last year), but this year (year three) is the first time I’m reaping a real harvest.  I get a few spears (enough for a meal) every two or three days.

Through the harvest season, the spears will get thinner and thinner as the plant weakens.  When they get to be about the thickness of a pencil, leave the plant to grow out into a bush so that it can spend the summer “recharging” for next year.
My less agrarian friends are always surprised to see asparagus that has grown out—I don’t have any pictures ready to go, but it grows into what looks like a bush, 4’-5’ tall.  It’s a beautiful specimen plant, with a few disadvantages as a landscaping element.  First, it dies back to the ground every winter and, if consistently harvested, doesn’t fill in until June or so.  Second, being a tall plant, it can cast some dense shade on neighboring plants.  In the vegetable garden, it should be situated on the North side of the garden whenever possible so that it doesn’t shade out shorter plants.
In the fall, after the asparagus has faded to its golden autumnal color, cut it down at ground level.  Mulch it well to add nutrients for next year’s growth.

Eating Asparagus
Home grown asparagus compares favorably with the store-bought variety, with the added advantage of not having stood in a tray full of tepid water for a week or more in the grocery store.  You also get a lot more of the thick, fleshy sprouts, as compared to the straggly store-bought stems.  I’ve been rolling it up in sushi, stir-frying it, and making a risotto with it.  The less time it spends cooking, the better, and it’s pretty good raw, as well—the store-bought stuff isn’t so good this way.  It’s got a unexpectedly nutty flavor.

I’ve started some asparagus from seed, but that adds yet another year to the prep period before it can be harvested.  That will be entering year two this year, so I won’t be able to compare seed stock to root stock for another several years.  Planting asparagus is a commitment, but a well-established asparagus plot can yield for decades, and there is really nothing that can compare to the first fresh vegetable of the year.

Winter Greens, Part II: The Cold Frame

March 22, 2009

This entry is a follow-up to my article on sprouts several weeks ago.

I planned on being able to post digital pictures before I wrote this, but that’s not happening.  In addition to sprouting various seeds, some home-grown and others from the store, I add fresh local vegetables to my winter diet through the use of a cold-frame.  I have had less than spectacular results, and a few meteorological mishaps, but the idea is worth sharing.

In my last entry, I gave a plan for an insulated straw-bale cold frame.  This year, I didn’t get enough bales before winter, so I used an alternate design–a variation on a hoop house.  I picked up about 75 ‘ of concrete reinforcing mesh–sort of an industrial-strength chicken wire with 6″ holes–to make tomato cages and a compost bin.  With the 15 or so feet I had left over, I made two sections that arced into a half-circle shape, about as wide as one of the beds in my garden.  Each section was cut to leave 6″ lengths of wire sticking out on the ends, which I stuck into the ground to secure the frame.  This left me with a wire tunnel, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  I was able to get some greenhouse-grade plastic (leftovers from a local greenhouse) to cover my frame, and weighed down the edges with some fist-sized rocks.  This left me with a miniature version of the full-sized greenhouses you’d see at a commercial-scale nursery.

The cold frame collects and retains solar energy, resulting in, well, a “greenhouse effect” that keeps the plants within at a much warmer temperature than the outside air.  Though this would only add a week or two to the life of warm weather plants, like peppers or tomatoes, it can keep cool-weather plants alive through all but the coldest Michigan winters.

Fall and Spring Planting in a Cold Frame

I stuck with cool-season greens in the fall, such as leaf lettuce, bok choy, and spinach, planted in the early fall or transplanted a little later.  These go more or less dormant when the weather gets cold, but the cold frame keeps them in a harvestable state through most of winter.  There isn’t a lot of growth, so your stock dwindles as spring approaches, but it’s a great way to keep some fresh and local food on the table all winter.  With no disrespect to the other two winter-long green vegetables, it’s way more interesting than kale, and far more versatile than brussel sprouts.

In spring, the cold frame is more of a head-start than a long-term plan.  Around the time I’m planting pea seeds, I pull out the rest of the winter greens from the cold frame (there’s usually not much left, and what’s left is starting to toughen up and flower), and plant a new crop.  This year, it was spinach, bok choy, leaf lettuce, and very early carrots.  The additional heat and humidity from the enclosed cold frame will give them several weeks of extra growing time before the open-air garden is ready to be planted.  I’ve sited the cold frame in the place I’m putting this year’s peppers, which won’t be planted until early summer, so most of these plants will have a chance to mature before the peppers go in.  I’ve considered putting the peppers in a few weeks before the last frost, hoping that the cold frame would give them the shelter and warmth they would need, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’m not sure how cold it can get in a cold frame, particularly at night.

Cold Frame Problems

Weather rarely cooperates with cold frame construction.  I’ve had my plastic sheeting blown off completely, despite weighing down the edges and clipping the plastic to the frame.  I’ve also had the entire thing collapse under the weight of snow and ice, crushing the leafy plants underneath.  Also, since the plastic sheeting is impermeable to rain, it can get desert-dry inside of a cold frame when all the ground moisture is frozen.

Access to vegetables is another problem.  With rocks weighing down the edges, water sometimes pools and freezes, making it hard to lift the plastic sheeting and reach in to harvest.  The 6″ access holes are also an obstacle.  I’ve adopted a “mass harvest” mentality, getting a week’s worth of greens in one go, just to simplify things.

Once spring starts to warm up, it can get very hot inside a greenhouse.  Think of a car parked in the sun with the windows up–opening up the cold frame on those warm, sunny days is a necessary inconvenience.

Weeds that are growing in the space where you’ve set up your cold frame are also able to take advantage of the microclimate, so they often spread throughout the winter.  Finally, keeping a bed in production all year takes a lot out of the soil, so your cold-frame bed should be refreshed with compost or fertilizer more often than others.

Possible Improvements

I’ve considered a number of options that I haven’t followed through on yet.  The first–instead of using weights to hold down the plastic, I’ve seen cold frames with trenches dug along their edges, with the edge of the plastic sheet buried under a few inches of soil.  This would hold it down a lot better, but would make it much harder to get into the cold frame.

Another modification would be to put it in so that it straddled two beds, with a path down the center.  I’d have to crawl in from the end (the taller a cold frame is, the less efficient it is, as heat rises away from the plants), but I wouldn’t have to reach, and I’d be able to bury the edges as mentioned above.

I’ve saved up a bunch of dark-colored laundry soap jugs, which I intend to fill with water and use as heat collectors.  The dark colors will absorb solar heat through the day, then release it at night.  Each jug takes up valuable square footage in the cold frame, though.

I may use a few stakes next year to reinforce the wire framework–I’ve never had a collapse before, but this year’s heavy snowfall brought the whole cold frame down.  It’s an easy enough fix, and I could have saved a few plants.

So far, using a cold frame has been more art than science, but it has kept in in the garden throughout the winter, and kept me out of the produce section of the grocery store for several weeks beyond the end of my garden’s regular season.  I’ll be building another straw-bale frame next year, provided I can round up enough free straw bales, but I’ll build another wire-frame hoop house as well, just to see if I can do any better.