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. 

Miner’s lettuce

Miner’s lettuce reminds me of tiny lily pads

I was delighted to find a specimen of this delicious little weed growing in our yard among the poppies: miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), but I don’t think it will thrive.

This plant is native to the West coast of the U.S. (and down into S. America, I believe) but it doesn’t do well in LA.* I never see it on the streets in my neighborhood, it’s too hot and dry. The only place I ever spot it–and rarely at that–is in wet, shady places in a few parks.

However, it loves the weather up North. In San Francisco, it takes over entire yards. Folks up there seem a little overwhelmed by it–and all I do is marvel that they’re not eating it as fast as it can grow.

See, miner’s lettuce is one of the best of all edible weeds: tender, mild, succulent. The perfect salad green. Search it out where it is buffeted by sea breezes, and it will also taste of salt.

You can buy seed for this plant and attempt to establish it as a feral green in your yard, or even grow it in beds. I’ve never tried here–I prefer to hunt my weeds.

Tell me, where else does it grow? How far East has it spread?  Comment if you know it or grow it.

If you want to learn more about miner’s lettuce, here’s a nice longer article about it at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

* ETA: I overgeneralized. I should have said “my side of LA.” A commenter from Westchester points out she grows it just fine, so folks on the west side of LA and the beach communities should try some seeds, or look for it when you’re out.

Dumpster Herb Score

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Scored big at Trader Joes yesterday. Love a good dumpster find, almost as much as finding good feral fruit.  It looks like they were clearing out their plants and flowers for Valentines Day, because out by the cardboard piles we found a grocery cart heaped full of wilted flowers and random potted mums. (Joes really needs to start a composting program, don’t you think?)

We sorted through the cart and found four potted herbs, only slightly distressed. One was a lemon balm, which I’ve wanted for some time. The others, I admit, I don’t really need (because I already have them), and don’t have any space for–but I’ll squeeze them in somehow. In this way, I’m like a crazy cat woman.

ETA: This morning two complimentary bits of information came in regarding TJ’s and composting. The first came in an email from our friend Anne, a Master Gardener. She tells us that: “Master gardeners encourages gardeners to arrange pick up times with TJ’s for plants. They will tell you when they are putting out the plants so you can get them. Lots of mg’s do this and bring them to various garden projects all around LA county.”

So that’s cool. And then in the comments there’s an anon comment from a TJs employee explaining the issues around composting for the stores, and giving some dumpster diving tips!

How to Process Carob

Before. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

Our neighborhood has an abundance of carob (Ceratonia siliqua) trees that, around this time of year, drop thousands of pounds of pods. Now many of us may have unpleasant associations with carob as a 1970s era chocolate substitute, but the tree has a long history in the Middle East, where it’s used to make a tea, as a source of molasses, as a vegetable and as animal feed. The “locusts” that John the Baptist dined on were not insects but, instead, the pods of the carob tree.

After. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

In the Middle East carob has a reputation as a famine food. According to the carob article in Wikipedia the people of Malta ate carob pods and prickly pear fruit during WWII. How appropriate then that my neighbor Bill Wheelock, who just dehydrated a huge batch of my prickly pear fruit (and faced the thorny consequences), took on the onerous task of figuring out how to dry carob pods and process then into a powder using common kitchen appliances. He has authored a handy step by step guide on Instructables on how to process carob.

As a drought tolerant tree that produces hundreds of pounds of pods each year, Ceratonia siliqua definitely should be included in any food forestry plant list for of our Mediterranean climate. So if that quantitative easing thing doesn’t work out, at lease we’ll have the carob and prickly pear.

Behind the Scenes of a Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Ad

Every decade has its celebrity forager. The aughts gave us Survivorman, but back in the 1960s and 70s Euell Gibbons stalked all that wild asparagus. This odd film, from the Academic Film Archive of North America, takes you behind the scenes of the creation of an iconic Grape Nuts ad staring Gibbons.

And the branding synergies between foragers and marketers continues–Survivorman pimps for auto insurer Geico–but, personally, I’ll take Gibbons and his wild cranberries, thank you.

Another gem from archive.org.

The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.