How to Cook Broadleaf Plantain

The last plantain in our yard–the only one which survived the long, brutal summer without water. The winter rains, which are just beginning, will have plantain sprouting all over Southern California soon.

We’re big fans of foraging teacher Pascal Baudar. He approaches wild foods like no one else we know–as a gourmet experience. Combining Old World traditions, Native wisdom and a good deal of culinary invention, Pascal and his partner, chef Mia Wasilevich push foraged food to “the next level.” In fact, together they run a website called Transitional Gastronomy dedicated to just this idea.

If you want to learn how to make your foraged food delicious, go see Pascal and Mia. If you live around LA or are planning a visit you can hook up with them through MeetUp. And you should definitely check out Pascal’s foraging website, Urban Outdoor Skills. Both of their websites feature “food labs” which have some of the most inventive wild food recipes I’ve seen anywhere.

On a recent visit to Urban Outdoor Skills, I was very excited to find he’d developed a cooking technique for broadleaf plantain (Plantago major, the common weed, not the banana relative). Though I know plantain is very nutritious, it is also bitter and heavily veined, so I prefer to collect it as a medicinal herb. I infuse it into oil that I put into salves and creams and I use it as a fresh poultice on itchy bites and hives. But eating it? Meh. I’ll put baby leaves in a salad. Erik has sprinkled the leaves on pizzas--and I’ll eat anything on a pizza. The seeds can be collected and used in seedy applications. But all in all, the flavor and tough texture of plantain left me uninspired.

Trust Pascal to figure out how to cook the stuff. He boiled it, testing often, and found a sweet spot: the exact time it takes to boil out of the bitterness, but still leave the leaf intact. The short story: 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old ones, so 4 minutes works for a mixed batch. This makes a tender cooked green with an almost seaweed-like texture. Go to his site for all the details and an extra bonus: an Asian-style sauce to make this dish sing.

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.