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Elderberries

January 14, 2012

lt’s been a lot time since my last post.  I’ll try to get up to date before the next foraging season starts up.  Today, we look at elderberries, an indigenous fruit that grows in dense enough thickets that, once you find a patch, it’s easy to collect berries by the bushel.

Finding Elderberries

Elderberries, like so many other wild foods, favor “fringe” areas at the edge of forests.  It’s often growing in the same places you’ll find raspberries, day lilies, and so on.  The easiest time to find it is when it’s blooming–it’s big, white, compound flowers are easy to pick out in early summer.  They’re composed of dozens of little flowers, all in a relatively flat plane, sometimes up to a foot across.  The bushes measure about 8-12′ high, and have compound leaves, a little like sumac or walnut.  If the fruit is ready (late August/early Spetember) look for the fruit–bunches of pea-sized black berries, arranged like the flowers in a 6″ to 12″ wide flat clusters.  The stems of these bunches have a distinctive red color–once you know the shade, you can usually recognize it from some distance.  I found my most reliable patch while driving along the highway.

Harvesting Elderberries

When harvesting, pick elderberries by the cluster, rather than picking individual berries.  The stems act as a cushion, so you can really pile up the harvest.  This makes picking elderberries a lot easier than raspberries, blueberries, or other, more delicate fruit.

Preparing Elderberries

Although they can be eaten out-of-hand, elderberries are not typically eaten fresh.  Euell Gibbons, in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggested they be dried, like raisins, and used in baked goods, so I tried that.

Initially, I pulled the berries off the stalks (a tedious, hand-staining activity) and laid them out in a solar dryer.  After several days in the sun, they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I put them in a food dehydrator.  They quickly shriveled up into hard, inedible little nuggets.  I may have missed the “sweet spot” in the dehydration process–I’ve never made raisins or anything like that in the dehydrator.  I threw the results out onto the driveway, and even the birds wouldn’t touch them.

Next time, I’m going to go for elderberry juice.  If I’m understanding the directions correctly, I believe I can run them through a press without going through the laborious process of removing the berries from the stems.  Once the juice is made, it can be mixed with other juices or fermented into elderberry wine.

Eating Elderberries

The few berries I ate out-of-hand were not delicious but not objectionable.  They were a little less sweet than mulberries, but okay.  If I were hungry, I’d enjoy them.  As for elderberry juice/wine/jelly/etc., I’ll try that next time around and report with a comment on this entry.

Blueberries

June 27, 2010

I intended to write this entry last summer, when I was lost in the wilderness of Washington and managed the hours in the woods by eating huckleberries, but that doesn’t really fit the “Great Lakes” theme of the blog.  I found them on a recent backpacking trip here in Michigan, though, and was delighted to discover that they were ripe and ready to eat.

Finding Blueberries

I have never found blueberries in my section of Michigan, but they were growing in patches as far as the eye could see just 50-60 miles north of where I live.  I haven’t found a great way to find blueberries, but anytime I’ve come across them, it’s been in a relatively undisturbed coniferous forest.  This makes sense, as blueberries require an acidic soil, which is typical beneath the pines and cedars I’ve found them under.

I don’t know of any lookalike plants that may confuse the blueberry-seeker–the berry is pretty distinctive, both in shape and color.  They may be smaller than grocery store blueberries, but they’re unmistakable.  The bushes are a foot or two tall with fairly sparse leaves.  The leaves are football-shaped, small (about the size of a quarter), and bright green.

Harvesting Blueberries

I’ve always found several types of blueberries growing together, and the ripe color of each variety is a little different, from blue to an almost purple-black.  The best way to determine if they’re ripe is to taste them.  They darken as they ripen, so berries of similar color should be similarly ripe.

Preparing Blueberries

They’re really best eaten out of hand, right off the bush, but they can be used in any recipe that calls for blueberries.

Eating Blueberries

Wild blueberry plants are quite different from domesticated plants–the bushes are much smaller less densely covered in fruit.  The berries are much smaller, sometimes even a quarter the size of grocery store blueberries, but there is no difference in taste.  I might even say that a handful of wild blueberries is better than store-bought, since you won’t find any of the bland, over-sweet and over-ripe berries on wild bushes.

60 degrees yesterday, and now we have snow on the ground…

March 20, 2010

I put in spinach, potatoes, and peas, and now the ground is covered with snow!  The bok choy will have to wait.  In the greenhouse, I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, brocolli, brussel sprouts, romaine, cabbage and cauliflower, along with some annual/biennial herbs.  I’m ready to get this growing season started!

Fresh Herbs Through the Winter

January 10, 2010

My brother in California has the luxury of a year-round herb garden.  For those of us in the Midwest, this is not a possibility.  Our short growing season leaves us either freezing and drying a crop of herbs in the summer for use throughout the winter months or heading to the grocery store once the snow covers the parsley.  These are not the only options, though.  With good timing and a few tricks, one can keep fresh herbs coming through a good part of the winter.  I still freeze ice cube tray after ice cube tray of basil pesto every August, but a few other herbs play a bigger part in my fresh winter eating.  I should note that I’m not a particularly sophisticated cook, so I’m only going to discuss the few herbs I use regularly; it shouldn’t take too much experimentation to apply some of these strategies to your favorite herbs.

Herbs as Houseplants
Though West Michigan’s sandy soil is ideal for most herbs, there are a number of major herbs that won’t survive our low winter temperatures.  The only solutions are to grow them as annuals or to over-winter them indoors.  I try to keep a rosemary plant alive every winter, and have made it as far as March, but I’ve got a good feeling about this year.  I started it as a seed in the early spring, and have it in a pot on the windowsill now.  It’s not too big, as you can see from the picture above, but it’s good for the occasional snip of piney flavor.  If it survives this winter, I’ll replant it in the garden, then re-pot it in the fall.  I’ve also heard of people growing bay laurels (for bay leaves) in pots, and over-wintering them indoors.

An ideal candidate for this sort of treatment is mint—in a yard as small as mine, I can’t just plant mint in a border—it’d creep across the yard (and the neighborhood) in a single growing season.  To prevent this, I keep it in a pot to contain the invasive underground shoots.  In the fall, the pot comes indoors for midwinter juleps or tabulleh.

A slight variation works for parsley.  It’s a biennial, so in its second year, the leaves get tough and it flowers.  It’s inedible the second year, so usually, gardeners dig up their parsley every year and start over the following spring.  You can get a few more months of production from your parsley by potting it up in fall and bringing it indoors.  If you wait until it gets too cool, you run the risk of your parsley going into second-year mode, so do it early.  Don’t bother saving the parsley to replant the next year—compost it when it goes dormant or sends up a flower stalk.

Herbs as Bulbs
The only bulbing herb I grow is chives, but I imagine this would work for any bulb.  I use the same method as you would to force flowering bulbs—pot up the bulbs in fall, subject them to a few months of “false winter” (cool weather, either in a garage/crawl space/attic or in the fridge), then bring them into a warm, sunny room to re-sprout.  The chives send up new shoots within a few days, and can be clipped for several weeks before the bulbs start to wear out.  I always have several pots waiting out in the garage to keep a supply going all winter.  In the spring, I usually give the potted bulbs to friends who are starting an herb or ornamental garden.  Of course, any landscape could always use a few more spikey purple chive blossoms.

Fresh Herbs, in Situ
Finally, some herbs retain enough of their flavor compounds through the winter to be dug up and used as it.  Thyme is especially good for this.  We have some along the house, and whenever I’ve got a pot of stock going, I can dig down to it, clip off a few stems, and throw it in.  Oregano will also put up with this treatment.  Think of it as “winter pruning” if it makes you more comfortable.  The flavor isn’t at its peak, but it’s probably comparable, if not superior, to home-dried leaves that are a few months old.

Whether you’re eating locally year-round (and getting sick of roots and squash) or just looking for a little fresh flavor to get you through the winter, coaxing your herbs into providing a crop for you in the winter is a great way to bolster one’s faith in the spring.  If you have success with any herbs not mentioned here, please let me know in the comments section.

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.

Home-grown Vegetables Hall of Fame III: Garlic

June 21, 2009

I covered the process of growing garlic last year, but recently saw the garlic flower buds for sale at the farmer’s market.  I had been putting them in floral arrangements (the pointy curlicue shapes make for a beautiful, if pungent, addition to bouquets), but didn’t know they were edible.

These flower buds, called “scapes”, come out in June here in Michigan,.  I cut them off above the top leaf.  The pointy, swollen flower head is too tough to eat, so it’s really just the stems that are edible.

The online recipes I’ve found for scapes advise that I “cook them like green beans”.  For my first attempt at cooking them, I just steamed them for a few minutes at ate them out of hand.  They were delicious–garlicky, but much milder.  They were also very difficult to eat, due to the spiral shape.  Since then, I’ve chopped them and added them to stir-fries or pizzas.  They were not quite strong enough to substitute for garlic, but they are good on their own terms.  I’m still looking for ideas for how to use them–send recipes if you’ve got ’em!

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.

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.