How to Juice Prickly Pear Fruit

Joseph working the thrift-store mill

I always know it’s prickly pear fruit season when questions start coming in on a recipe I did for a prickly pear fruit jelly. Unfortunately, the mucilaginous and seedy texture of the fruit makes it difficult to work with. The only tested recipe I could find, for a prickly pear marmalade in the Ball Blue Book, says nothing about how to seed or juice the fruit.

With the assistance of two fellow Master Food Preservers, Pure Vegan author Joseph Shuldiner and restaurateur Stephen Rudicel, we tested two ways to juice prickly pear fruit: an electric juicer and two hand cranked food mills.The food mills worked the best.

We simply burned the spines off the fruit over a stove burner and quartered the fruit (no peeling necessary). Then we tossed them in the food mill, turned the handle and got lots of delicious juice. The electric juicer ground up the seeds which gave an off-flavor to the juice. The electric food mill was tough to clean. Pictured above is one of the food mills we tried, a simple model from a thrift store. We also used a Roma Food Mill, which worked even better but, of course, costs more money.

Joseph and Stephen, intent on The Cause

We intended to make jelly with our juice but Stephen suggested prickly pear juice cocktails. The rest of the afternoon was somewhat of a blur, but thankfully I was sober enough to write down the recipe. I’ll share that tomorrow.

Tree Tobacco as a Stinging Nettle Cure

Tree tobacco or Nicotiana glauca. Image from Wikipedia.

Yesterday’s Solanum nigrum (Black Nightshade) post reminded me of a fascinating tidbit about another plant from the nightshade family that I learned from foraging expert Pascal Baudar: the leaves of tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) ease stinging nettle rash. We were out gathering nettles with Pascal, so the lesson was much appreciated–and field tested. All you have to do is rub a Solanum nigrum leaf on the sting–make sure some of the leaf juice gets on there– and the sting goes away. So if you plan to harvest nettles, I’d recommend you keep a tree tobacco leaf in your pocket.

The classic herbal antidote to nettle stings is Jewelweed, but I don’t believe it grows in the southwest–at least I’ve never seen it. Tree tobacco is a good substitute for folks in our region

Native Americans smoked Nicotiana glauca and used it as a topical medicine. It is poisonous if taken internally.

A late note from Kelly, who is out of town and so didn’t get to consult on this post before it went up: 

As Erik says here, Nicotiana glauca totally works for nettle stings–I highly recommend it– but I have some contradicting information regarding Native American usage.

I took a herbology class with the late Cecilia Garcia, who was a Chumash medicine woman, and she told us that Indians used this plant as an appetite suppressant during hard times. The adults would drink tea made of its leaves so they could give what food they had to the children. This sad story always gives me chills when I think of it.

That said, I would never drink it myself! There are safer appetite suppressants out there. The toxicology report Erik links to seems to indicate that the fatalities occurred in people who mistook it for an edible green and ate a lot of it.

As always…toxicity is related to dosage!

Also, I wouldn’t smoke it. If you want to smoke natural tobacco, it would be safer and probably better tasting to grow an interesting old strain of heirloom smoking tobacco. Native American smoking blends tend to be mixes of many plants, so I’d be wary of a 100% glauca cigarette. Again…dosage!

Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is Edible and Delicious

Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum)

The issue of the edibility of black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) came up in the comments on our post on forager Pascal Baudar. We’ve blogged about the confusion between the edible Solanum nigrum and the toxic “deadly nightshade” or Atropa belladonna in a post last year. But Pascal left a link to an excellent article by author and forager Sam Thayer that puts in the nail in the coffin of the myth that Solanum nigrum is poisonous.

Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna)

Two lessons here. As Thayer puts it, “myths of toxicity are commonplace (in fact, I’d argue that they are a universal feature of human culture) while myths of edibility are exceedingly rare, since they are soon discredited.” I strongly suspect that there are many other plants wrongly accused of toxicity. Remember that tomatoes were long thought poisonous, in part due to similarities in appearance to Atropa belladonna, and associations with witchcraft.

The second lesson is the importance of using scientific not popular names when describing plants. Much of the confusion surrounding Solanum nigrum is caused by “experts” confusing it with Atropa belladonna due to the similarity between both the appearance of the plant and the popular names. Solanum nigrum is, by the way, much more commonplace. 

Unripe (green) fruit of Solanum nigrum does contain solanine and should be avoided, but the ripe fruit is perfectly edible and quite delicious. People all around the world eat Solanum nigrum. In parts of the US Solanum nigrum berries are made into pies. I’ve snacked on Solanum nigrum berries from the backyard and I was lucky to be served Solanum nigrum prepared in a balsamic reduction sauce by Pascal’s partner Mia Wasilevich…and I’ve lived to tell the tale!

Pascal Baudar: Rock Star Forager

Photo by Mia Wasilevich

Los Angeles is home to a new rock star of foraging, Pascal Baudar. Originally from Belgium, I met Pascal through the Master Food Preserver program. Pascal teaches some amazing foraging classes in the Los Angeles area that you can sign up for via his meetup group: Los Angegles Wild Edibles and Self Reliance. He also has a website, Urban Outdoor Skills.

What makes Pascal different from may other foragers is that he has collaborated with his partner Mia Wasilevich, to figure out innovative culinary uses for the “weeds” we find in our local landscape. His Facebook page is full of stunning photographs such as the one above:

Quick wild edibles snack for lunch. Steamed Cattail heads with butter and habanero infused salt (homemade). Sauteed yucca flower buds and lambsquarters with aged balsamic vinegar. California Black walnut hot sauce (very similar to A1 but with a kick and more sweet). Some wild radish and mustard flowers as well as home made infused California bay salt.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of eating a foraged green salad, soup and “deconstructed potato salad” that he and Mia cooked up. It was, no exaggeration here, one of the most amazing meals of my life. That green salad that Mia prepared and Pascal foraged looked like this:

Photo by Mia Wasilevich

It consisted of:

Yucca flowers and bud in a nighshade berries redux sauce, sow thistle, curly dock, amaranth, wild radish sprouts, wild radish pods, cattail, radish flowers, mustard flowers, purslane in a lemon (secret dressing) and on the right, pickled yucca shoot, radish and walnuts with goat cheese.

All of the items in both dishes are easily obtainable here and many other places in North America. Proof that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat gourmet. 

Mellow Yellow: How to Make Dandelion Wine

Today on Root Simple we welcome another guest post from our Midwest correspondent Nancy Klehm:

In the past week, we Midwesterners have experienced three hard frosts – killing back the growth, that emerged too early of my grapes and hardy kiwis and zapping peach blossoms. We will see if there is any fruit onset and if my vines recover.

Meanwhile, it is dandelion wine time!

I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.

That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.

Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.

So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.

As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…

When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.

Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.

So here’s how I make dandelion wine…

I pour one gallon boiling water over one gallon dandelion flowers in a large bowl. When the blossoms rise (wait about twenty-four to forty-eight hours), I strain the yellow liquid out, squeezing the remaining liquid out of the flowers, into a larger ceramic or glass bowl. I compost the spent flowers (thanks dandelion!).

Then I add juice and zest from four lemons and four oranges, and four pounds of sugar (4-4-4 = E.Z.). Okay, now here’s what I think is the best part: I float a piece of stale bread, sprinkled with bread yeast, in the mixture. This technique is used in Appalachian and some European recipes.

Then I toss a dishtowel over it so the mixture can both breathe and the crud floating around my house stays out. I continue stirring the wine several times a day until it stops fermenting. This takes about two weeks or so.

When I am certain it has stopped “working”, I strain, bottle and cork it up and bid it farewell until months later. In fact I wait until the winter solstice, when I can revisit that sunny spring day by drinking it in.

Everlasting Flower for Colds

Dried California Pearly Everlasting. The flowers are small, about the size of a buttons on a shirt collar.

Last summer I was happy to be able to take a class on native plant use taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, co-authors of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. One of the many things I learned in this class was that the flowers of California Pearly Everlasting, Gnaphalium californicum, aka cudweed aka rabbit tobacco, are supposed to be good for colds.

I’ve not had a chance to try it until this week. I’ve only had one cold since last summer, and that one hit so fast and hard I just sort of gave up on doing anything but riding it out. The one I have this week is more of a typical head cold, and  a good chance for a field test. And I can say that I think they helped. But I’m not sure how.

My confusion is a result of memory vs. notes. I remember James saying he takes this tea instead of Day Quill whenever he has a cold. So, having the flowers on hand, I took the tea expecting it to act like cold medicine. Because the effects are so subtle (unlike cold capsules) I didn’t think my first cup was doing anything at all–until I realized I’d stopped sneezing and constantly blowing my nose. The relief lasted for a few hours. When I started feeling crappy again, I had another cup and the symptoms retreated again.  Over the course the first day I had 3 cups. The next day, I felt much better. My symptoms were less, though I did still feel “under siege” and retreated to bed early.

During the course of that day, I dug out my class notes and discovered that Cecilia said something different than what I remembered–she said that Everlasting is an immune stimulant, and when you have a cold you’re supposed to take one cup (one!) before bed for 4 nights. It has to be 4 cups over 4 nights, even if you feel better. No more, no less. So she’s using it more like Echinacea–not as a symptom relief.  Meanwhile, random internet searches affirm that it’s good for colds, but don’t say how.

Continue reading…

Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.”  The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!

Solanum nigrum

To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.

Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!

The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of  intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids.  Jennifer M. Edmonds and  James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,

. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums. 

The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.

A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.

Nasturtium Flower and Pistachio Pesto: a story in pictures

Sorry, we don’t have a recipe for this, because we always wing it when it comes to pesto–even Erik, who is recipe dependent. You too can make it without a recipe.

Pesto is simply a blending of 5 main ingredients, which can vary widely according to season, availability and taste:

1) an aromatic herb, or blend of herbs (traditionally basil, but we use chives, parsley, mint, arugula and here, nasturtium flower–basically anything with a strong flavor. This can be stretched with some spinach or nettles for a milder flavor.)
2) a nut of some sort, toasted preferably
3) good quality shredded Parmesan cheese
4) good quality olive oil
5) raw or roasted garlic

You throw all these things in a blender, or go old school and mash them with a mortar and pestle. The proportions are intuitive. It’s hard to make bad pesto as long as your ingredients are good. Less cheese and nuts yields a lighter pesto. Less herb and more cheese and nuts makes a richer pesto. Less garlic yields a milder pesto. We use maybe 2 raw cloves per batch. It’s all good. Process the dry ingredients first, then add oil bit by bit to make a paste. Some people make a smooth paste, we leave nut chunks in. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve pesto over hot pasta, or spoon it into soup for flavor, or dip veggies in it, or thin it down and drizzle it over cooked veggies, or spread it on toasted bread, or eat it off the spoon…

Plantain for rashes

It’s hard to take a decent picture when both of your hands are covered in green slime!

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

A couple of days ago I made a mistake: I attacked a stand of rogue borage without gloves. You know how it is when you think you’re just going to make one pruning cut, and then end up hacking for an hour in a mindless frenzy? Borage is covered with irritating little hairs which made my hands and forearms itch and burn. I really should have known better.

Plantago major

Fortunately, our yard provides the cure for such indiscretions in the form of a nice patch of common plantain (Plantago major). This broad leaf plantain, as well as its narrow leaved cousin, Plantago lanceolata, are fantastic for easing the irritation of itchy rashes and bug bites. I harvest the leaves, dry them, and make them into salves for year round use, but when plantain is growing, it’s easiest to use it fresh. All you have to do is pick a leaf, chew on it a little, and rub the pulp on your skin. Really rub it so you get the green juices out. You’ll feel relief immediately.

Keep this in mind when you’re out in a park or hiking. Plantain grows everywhere–it’s a universal weed, and it’s particularly fond of lawns. Once you know what it looks like, you can find it easily.

Do any of you have a favorite natural cure for rashes or bug bites?


Homemade Teeccino


A carob tree heavy with pods

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I kicked coffee, and reduced my caffeine intake down to maybe one cup of green tea a day, and it’s been a really good thing. At that time, Root Simple readers wrote in to suggest all sorts of coffee alternatives for me, and I tried a bunch of them. One of them was Teeccino, with which I quickly developed a love-hate relationship.

Teeccino is a line of coffee substitutes based on carob, chicory, various nuts and flavors. It’s not one of those instant beverages like Pero: you prepare it by brewing it or steeping it in water. I found it at Whole Foods and tried a bag. I liked it, not because it tastes like coffee–it doesn’t–but it behaved in soothing, coffee-like ways. You can put milk in it. It looks like coffee and has a coffee-like body.

It comes in a ton of flavors, like hazelnut and French vanilla, which I avoided because I don’t like dessert  coffees, and besides, those flavors remind me of my days working in unpleasant office jobs, where you live for the bad coffee, just to stay awake, and all they have in the office kitchenette is that godawful Irish Cream or Hazelnut flavored artificial creamer, and you actually kind of get used to the stuff, because you’re so starved for stimulation…

But I digress.

I found I liked the Teeccino flavor called Java. And the Maya French Roast flavor wasn’t bad either. That was the most “coffee-ish” but I liked the smoother Java better.

So what’s not to like? Well, primarily the price. It’s $8.99 for an 11 oz. bag (.81/oz), which is all they carry at my Whole Foods. Online you can get it 1 lb cans, but there’s no price discount–bizarrely, it actually increases a bit. It’s $13.99 per lb (.84/ oz).  That’s more than Starbucks coffee, which averages around $10.99/lb. To Teeccino’s credit, their ingredients are mostly organic, and I know that’s expensive. But still.

Moreover, you go through it fast. It’s a heaping tablespoon full for every serving. I tried to use the grounds twice each time, but still, that little bag emptied right quick like.

My other complaints include their use of “natural coffee flavors” in the blends. I just automatically consider any flavor additive–”natural” or “artificial”– as things to be avoided.

Finally, and I admit this is very idiosyncratic, but I don’t like their marketing. It’s not that’s it’s evil or anything, but their website is all plastered with pictures of wholesome looking pregnant ladies and silver haired mature models downing the Teeccino. It’s aggressively positioned as a women’s health product, and that just sort of bugs me. Hard to say why. I’m not into gendering beverages, and more than that, it’s just very upscale. It smells of that same world that brings us $70 yoga pants.

So I went through a couple of bags and moved on to other beverages.

Then, one day, our neighbor Bill found some carob trees growing nearby. He harvested the pods and then delved into an epic voyage of discovery trying to figure out how to grind and process them. When he was done, he had a pillowcase sized bag of carob powder. He gave us a jar full. I looked at the jar and thought, “Hmmm…Teeccino.”

Wild chicory

Teeccino’s Java flavor ingredients are:  Roasted organic carob, organic barley, chicory, organic chicory, almonds, organic dates, natural coffee flavor, organic figs.

The Maya French Roast is simpler: Roasted organic carob, organic barley, organic chicory, organic ramon nuts, organic coffee flavor. 

The vague dried fruit flavor the figs and dates bring to the Java I can do without. I don’t know that the nuts or the barley add all that much, overall. And the coffee flavoring–enough said. I decided the Teeccino secret was all about the balance between the bitter chicory and the sweet smooth carob.

So I got myself some roast ground chicory at the health food store and brewed a cup using a teaspoon of carob and a teaspoon of chicory.

It was deelish. This is a classic case of Two Great Tastes Taste Great Together. The chicory keeps the carob from being insipid. The carob smooths out all of the chicory’s rough edges, making it mildly sweet. This blend is robust and flavorful, and good for you. The roast chicory (a good coffee sub. all by itself, btw) is particularly beneficial for your digestion. I don’t have any Teeccino to do a side-by-side comparison, but I assume the Teeccino would taste more complex, but who needs complex when you’ve got good?

I’ve been meaning to experiment with the recipe, maybe add some roasted nuts or barley, just to do my due diligence, but I never seem to get around to it. I’m happy with what I have, so I decided to post about it in it’s simple form. I guess that’s what we’re all about here, anyway.

How to brew: At first, I just put a teaspoon of each in a fine mesh tea strainer. Some silt  ended up at the bottom of the cup using this method, but it wasn’t bad. Lately I’ve switched to brewing it in a gold filter and one of those one cup drip things. This makes a sediment free brew. You could also run it through a coffee machine, or use a French press. Basically, just have to steep the grounds in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then are strain them out by hook or crook.

A variation: Sometimes I substitute roasted dried dandelion root for the chicory.  Dandelion is also a coffee substitute, but it’s a stern one, very strong and bitter. Yet it’s quite drinkable when combined with carob. It’s also medicinal–a liver cleanser. For that reason it’s great to drink once in a while to help detox your system, but you shouldn’t use it continuously.

Sourcing: Search for carob at health food stores, spice shops and places that sell vitamin supplements. It’s pretty easy to find and generally cheap. The chicory is more expensive and a little more difficult to find–sometimes it’s at health food stores, and of course, it’s online.

In terms of foraging or growing, chicory is the same plant as Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus). You can grow it, harvest the root, roast and grind it. You may also find it growing wild in your area. See this helpful article on growing chicory and endive. It’s kind of fascinating. (Did you know you make Belgian endive by pulling up and reburying chicory root in it’s second year?) And remember, you could use wild dandelion root instead. I can’t give you any tips on grinding and roasting chicory, but Erik and are thinking about growing some next winter and experimenting. We’ll report back.

Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is native to the Mediterranean, and only does well in similar climates, so foraging is out of the question for a lot of you. But it’s planted widely around California and Mexico. The Spanish missionaries brought it here, and then the Seventh Day Adventists planted carob trees all over Pasadena in the last century, so Root Simple’s general area is Carob Central. Angelinos, Pasadinians and Altadenians take note. I’m going to have to ask Bill for a guest post on how he processed the carob pods.

A caveat: This is cheap for me because I’m getting my carob for free. I paid $12.00/lb for organic roasted chicory. That’s pricey, but it’s going to stretch much further than a pound of Teeccino. I’m using a teaspoon of chicory per serving, vs. a heaping tablespoon of Teeccino. The prices of both carob and chicory vary widely. Whether or not this will save you money depends on how you source the materials.

Update Sept 22, 2011:

I’m still enjoying straight chicory or chicory/carob blend for breakfast. I’ve never gone that extra yard of adding nuts or dried fruit or other flavors, but am happy. However, I did want note that when I ran out of foraged carob, I bought roasted carob powder at the health food store. This stuff has a very different flavor profile than my foraged carob. Mostly because the bought stuff is roasted, so it brings in bitter notes of its own. The resulting brew is not as sweet. It’s still okay, but I sort of miss my raw, fresh ground pods.

The store bought stuff is also ground as fine as talc. The foraged stuff was more granular. This means that if I use it with any kind of strainer apparatus, the carob ends up in the bottom of my cup as sludge. The only way to avoid that is to use a coffee filter of some sort–I use a gold filter.