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!)

claycooking287

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

hemlock

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.

330px-Foeniculum_vulgare_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-148

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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Gourmet Foraging and Advanced Acorn Processing

acorns

It’s acorn season in Southern California. I’ve long been interested in acorns, knowing that they were the staple food of the native people who lived here, and I’ve gathered and processed them before. However, once I have the acorn meal, I’ve never known exactly what to do with it. It’s highly nutritious, but I thought (wrongly!) that it was somewhat bland, and all I could do was incorporate acorn meal into baked goods. This weekend, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibilities, thanks to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich.

pascal and mia at a picnic table

Pascal and Mia putting out a spread: acorn sliders, acorn and tapioca pudding, red cabbage and red onion slaw with wild juniper berries, chocolate truffles infused with white sage and dusted with dehydrated raspberry powder, plum membrillo and beer hopped with yarrow. We were there to learn about acorns, but they fed us well!

Pascal and Mia are high caliber foragers and foodies.  Check out their sites, Urban Outdoor Skills and Transitional Gastronomy, and if you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll definitely want to experience their forages and food workshops. Their Meetup groups are The Los Angeles Wild Food and Self-Reliance Group and Foraging Foodies LA.

It’s rare to find folks who combine deep food know-how with a love of wild foods. Too often wild foods are considered mere survival foods. Pascal and Mia are using them to develop a uniquely Californian cuisine. Just check out this gallery on Transitional Gastronomy to get a quick picture of what I’m talking about.

On Sunday, Erik and I attended their acorn processing workshop, where we learned some valuable tips regarding acorn processing, and were privileged to eat the finest vegetarian burgers we’ve ever tasted — sliders made with acorns.

acorn sliders

I’ve downed a lot of veggie burgers in my time, and I’ve come to think of them mostly as excuse to eat bread and condiments. I’ve never had a veggie burger good enough to eat on its own. The acorn burgers they treated us to were not just “good for veggie” but some of the tastiest food I’ve ever encountered.

It turns out that acorns have umami qualities, that savoriness that characterizes meat and mushrooms, along with a delicate sweetness. You just need to know how to bring it out.

Mia did say that acorns have unique qualities in how they hold and absorb moisture, so she’s been learning how to handle them. Like any new food, it takes a while to learn the ways of acorns, but it’s worth it.

Here’s a recipe from Mia’s Transitional Gastronomy site for acorn timbales. If you serve these on a bun, instead of in a pool of (amazing looking!) nettle veloute sauce, you will have the acorn burger I experienced this weekend.  Do be sure to note the part where she asks you to refrigerate the mix before cooking. She told us that if the mix doesn’t have time to set up, the patties will fall apart. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to chill, but I believe she said overnight. (You could also make a log of the mix and freeze it for later, like cookies.)

I’m going to forage some acorns of my own this week and see if I can replicate those sliders. In the meanwhile, after the jump  I’m going to share some processing tips that I picked up.

Let us know if any of you process acorns,  and if you have any tips or recipes!

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