Prickly Wisdom

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We wanted to share this great comment by Mangofish left on one of our posts about prickly pear cactus:

Way back when I was just a lad, 40 years ago, My neighbor was a very old and almost completely blind Mexican. Good ol’ Sal Franco! In his younger days he lived wild and free, riding his horse in the deserts of Mexico. He actually briefly met Pancho Villa. He lived off the land, selling rattle snakes to earn some money, and ate what the desert provided. To eat the prickly pears he would gather a fist full of weeds to make a brush. Green weeds were the best since they held onto the tiny spines the best, but dried weeds worked OK but they allow the fine needles to blow in the wind. With the wind at your back dust the prickly pears with the weeds and knock off the needles. In bright sunlight you will see the needles glittering in the air as the wind carries them away, strong wind is preferred otherwise hold your breath so you don’t inhale the fine needles if the wind gently stirs around you. Once the needles are gone you can pluck the tunas off the cactus or use a pocket knife and slice the tunas open while they are still attached to the cactus and scoop out the inner fruit with your finger tips. I usually take them inside the house and enjoy them by slicing them in half and holding one end with a fork and with a spoon scoop out the flesh. But on a hot day working in the yard I’ll have a snack and using my pocket knife slice open the skin and access the juicy center while it is still attached to the cactus. I have 6 varieties now including the two which Sal originally gave to my dad. I can only wonder where Sal may have originally obtained those!

With bonus plantain!

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I was cruising the nursery aisles when three of my favorite words caught my eye: dandelion, chickweed and plantain.

I read the print on this bag as saying “Contains dandelion, chickweed and plantain” and–apparently drifting in my own fantasy world where things make sense, instead of the world in which we actually live–I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic! All three in one bag for easy seeding.”

Then I looked again and realized that the text read “Controls” not “Contains.”  It was–of course– a bag of weed n’ feed lawn stimulator–chock full of poison for killing my favorite edibles and medicinals  (as well as, I admit, some pretty intractable grasses).

Not a large bag of wild seed to make your yard into a giant salad bowl.

I’d like to return to my fantasy world now, please.

Seed, nut and fruit energy bars

fruit and nut bar

Erik is going off to the Heirloom Festival tomorrow, leaving me to helm the Root Simple empire while he brushes up on his clogging and squash ogling. Today he asked me if I would make him some energy bars as road food. I was happy to, as this is the easiest thing to do in the world. These date-based, no-bake bars are all the thing in the raw vegan precincts of the Internet (or maybe rather they were all the thing c.2009) but it just occurred to me that maybe not everyone has encountered them yet.

As fast snacks go, these are better than 99% of commercial energy bars, and far better than truck stop donuts. They’re all fruit and protein and good fats. They one downside is that they’re pretty sugary, but all the sugar is from dried fruit. The trick is not to eat these in quantity–they’re as packed with calories as they are with nutrition. One little square should hold you over ’til your next meal.

DIY Larabars

I first started making these when I wanted a DIY version of a Larabar. If you’ve ever had a Larabar and looked at the ingredients list, you’ve seen that the ingredients are dried fruit and nuts, period. Which is great–I don’t like soy and added sugar and wheat filler material in my snacks–but Larabars are pricey for something so simple and replicable at home. Admittedly, dried fruit and nuts are pricey too, but you’re still going to come out ahead if you make your own.

A Not-Recipe

Now, the problem with this post is that I don’t have a recipe for these. It’s too simple a process to warrant a recipe.

Anyway, it strikes me that about half of any group of recipe readers has no intention whatsoever of following the directions, so this should make you gonzo types happy. As for you folks who yen for structure, trust me. You don’t need a recipe for mud pies, do you? (By the way, have you seen this piece on The Toast on recipe comments?)

All you have to is mix roughly 50% dried fruit with 50% seeds and nuts of your choice in a food processor until it forms a dough which will hold shape. If necessary, add more fruit or nuts until you reach this consistency. This stuff is very forgiving–you have a lot of leeway. How much should I usee, you ask? 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups of each  is enough to start with.

(Yes, you do need a food processor, though I suppose you could cowboy this whole thing using a mortar and pestle and a strong arm.)

Press this blob into a pan, in a flat layer–you don’t even have to grease the pan–and chill for a couple of hours, then cut into bars. Or you can roll it into bite sized balls and chill those. It’s best to keep your bars or balls in the fridge, though you can wrap them up in wax paper and take them to go.

See? It’s easy.

The bars Erik is taking with him tomorrow contain dates, raisins walnuts, pistachios, chia seeds, ground flax seed, wild sedge seed (gathered while foraging) and Erik’s favorite part–cacao nibs. I used these ingredient because they were in my cupboard. It turned out good. The thing is, these always turn out good.

Some fussy details:

1)  It’s all about the dates!

The dates should be Medjool dates, the soft, sticky kind, for both their sweetness and their binding properties. If you want to use another dried fruit in the mix, I’d recommend you still use dates for at least half the fruit component, just because they are so much the foundation of this recipe.

If you can’t find soft sticky Medjool dates, and have to use the lesser, drier kind, try soaking them in water first until they soften up. I’ve heard this works, but haven’t done it myself.

Other fruits to consider would include anything sticky, like raisins, dried cherries, dried figs and dried plums. Dried apples, for instance, are not sticky, so can’t help bind the mix. You could use chopped dried apples, but count them more like a dry ingredient.

2) For extra flavor, you can add all sorts of things, like a pinch of sea salt, spices, vanilla extract, coconut flakes, even honey if you have a very sweet tooth.  Most importantly, you can add chocolate: cacao nibs, a few spoonfuls of good quality cocoa powder or raw cacao powder, or heck, a handful of chocolate chips. I’d add the cocoa sparingly, tasting as you go, to make sure it doesn’t get too chalky. The sweetness of the dates and other fruits usually does a fine job of balancing bitter cocoa flavors, but of course you can add sweetners if necessary.

3) These bars are a good chance to use seeds, which are nutritional powerhouses, but sometimes hard to figure out how to use. Substitute some of the nut volume with seeds–and it’s okay to go over a little, to be more like 60% nuts and seeds. Consider using chia, hemp, flax, poppy, sunflower and sesame seeds. There are also lots of wild seeds that you’ll know about if you forage, and foraged seeds are often dull, so this is a good use for them.

4) Walnuts are a great choice for a base ingredient in any energy bar. They  just have a nice consistency, and I’d recommend they have a place in almost any batch. A simple bar that’s half dates and half walnuts is classic and delicious.But almonds, pistachios, pecans–well, heck, I really can’t imagine any nut that would not work well.  You can use nut butters too, but they are wet, so you’ll have to play with the ingredients a bit– or maybe add something starchy like oats to balance it out.

5) I’d recommend adding a spoonful of coconut oil toward the end of processing, if you have it on hand. It just makes everything a little smoother and better looking.

Some mixing advice

Mix up the nuts and seeds and any flavorings, like salt, first, before adding the dried fruit, just to make sure they’re evenly distributed before things get sticky.

It’s a good idea to hold back some of the nuts for two reasons. First, so you can add some bigger pieces back into the finished product, so you have some visual interest and crunch. Second, so you have spare ingredients if you need to adjust the mix.

For the same reason, hold back some dried fruit so you can make the mix stickier if need be.

The dough–or paste?–or whatever you call it–will look loose and sandy when you first process it, but go ahead and reach in there and squeeze a little ball together. It should hold shape. If it doesn’t, and it seems too dry, you need more dried fruit. If it’s crazy sticky or goopy, you need more nuts and seeds.

Keep your hands wet when working with the mix to avoid sticky fingers.

Enjoy!

Wild Food Lab: Foraging Taken to the Next Level

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Photo: Mia Wasilevich.

There are a lot of wild food foragers out there but few who really know what to do with nature’s bounty. The gastronomical and foraging team of Mia Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar are pushing the boundaries of food and foraging, teaching classes, putting on pop-up feasts and sharing their discoveries through a website, Wild Food Lab.

Kelly and I took a class from them last weekend (you can find out about the classes through the Los Angeles Wild Edibles and and Self Reliance Meetup) where, in the middle of a hot, dry field in Southern California they proved you can still find abundant and tasty edibles. At this time of year that food comes mostly in the form of seeds. Pascal and Mia created, on the spot, a weed seed power bar, mustard and a few other wild seed enhanced foods.

Not an LA local? The Wild Food Lab website will give you an idea of what this team is up to through recipes and techniques for common wild foods. I think my favorite recipe is also the simplest: how to prepare the ubiquitous broadleaf plantain (Plantago major).

Pascal gave me a couple of ideas for ways to enhance my bread experiments with seeds and wild herbs which I’m looking forward to trying.

Do you have a favorite wild food? Tell us where you live and what you like to gather and work with.

Is Purslane the New Kale?

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Salty, crunchy, nutritious and edible raw or cooked, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) could soon be ready for its fifteen minutes of vegetable fame. We planted some this year in our summer vegetable garden and I’ve used it in a lot of salads this week.

Purslane is a common weed in North America. We’d love to be able to forage it in the neighborhood but, for some reason, it only tends to appear in unappetizing locations: usually the gutter (I think it needs a bit more water than what falls naturally from the sky here). You can eat the whole plant: stems and leaves. It has a salty and slightly lemony flavor reminiscent of New Zealand spinach.

There’s always a huge bin of it at Super King, our local Armenian supermarket. In Armenia it’s gathered in the wild and used either raw in salads or lightly sauteed.

There’s even a World Cup tie-in. The color of the plant in South America is associated with green/white soccer uniforms.

Have you grown purslane? Foraged purslane? How do you like to eat it?

From the Archives: Loquat Leather

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Judging from the reaction to Mrs. Homegrown’s post yesterday it looks like some folks have a loquat obsession. Welcome home brothers and sisters.

At the risk of tooting my own loquat horn and repeating an old blog post, Mrs. H neglected to mention my controversial 2012 loquat leather experiment and recipe. You’ve still got to de-seed the damn things but at least there’s no need to skin them. Plus it makes use of booze.

I’ll admit it’s not a thrilling fruit leather but it’s not too bad.

Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

My philosophy is simply that if one is going to go through the trouble of making fruit leather, preserves, pies etc., one should use outstanding fruit. The flavor tells in the end. After all, the starving times are not upon us. Even Erik can’t get super excited about this fruit leather–as I recall it tasted mostly of lemon and booze.

Then again, some people may have outstanding loquats–it sounds so from the comments on the last post. The ones we have access to just aren’t fantastic for preserving–too watery, too light. I just learned that there are over 800 cultivars of loquats, so there’s going to be lots of different loquat experiences.

Loquat season is here!

loquat tree

photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
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*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Campfire Cooking: Fish in Clay (& Vegetarian Options!)

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The foraging and culinary partnership of Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich continue to make amazing discoveries. I’d describe their work as elemental–start with wild, local ingredients, use direct but often novel techniques to create a cuisine at once sophisticated and neo-primitive. We blogged about their acorn processing workshop back in October. This month we were fortunate to have taken their class on cooking with clay.

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Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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