Something for Nothing – Wild Mustard Greens


Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, which was the case for us yesterday after discovering a large stand of white mustard (Sinapis alba) growing at the end of a nearby dead end street. Mustard grows all over the neighborhood, but rarely in a place out of dog pee range like this little patch. Classified by the USDA as a noxious weed, the leaves have a pleasant and pungent flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. From the Plants for a Future database entry:

“Leaves . . . A hot pungent flavour, especially if eaten raw. Young leaves are used as a flavouring in mixed salads, whilst older leaves are used as a potherb. Seed – sprouted and eaten raw. The seed takes about 4 days to be ready. A hot flavour, it is often used in salads. A nutritional analysis is available. The seed can be ground into a powder and used as a food flavouring, it is the ‘white mustard’ of commerce . . . The pungency of mustard develops when cold water is added to the ground-up seed – an enzyme (myrosin) acts on a glycoside (sinigrin) to produce a sulphur compound. The reaction takes 10 – 15 minutes. Mixing with hot water or vinegar, or adding salt, inhibits the enzyme and produces a mild bitter mustard.”

And speaking of urban foraging, we’ve been inspired by our visitor from Chicago, Nancy Klehm. Hear an interview with her, “Foraging for Food on the Streets of L.A.“, on Weekend America. Happy foraging . . .

Arundo dorax

My native Los Angeles and Houston, where Homegrown Evolution is in temporary residence, have a lot in common. Both are real cities, unlike the Disneyfied theme parks that New York and San Francisco have become. Both Houston and Los Angeles have lots of heavy industry and working ports. Visit the docks in Manhattan or San Francisco and you’ll find expensive restaurants and boutiques. Like the port of Los Angeles, along Houston’s Bayous you’ll find refineries, factories and scrap metal yards. And both L.A. and Houston have clogged mega-freeways.

Add to these parallels, an abundance of Arundo dorax, a giant invasive reed known by the popular name, Carrizo. According to Delena Tull’s excellent book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest, Arundo dorax seeds can be ground into a flour, the young shoots are edible and a kind of candy can be made from the stems. Just like bamboo, the tough stems make excellent building materials, which is why the plant was originally imported to California in the early 19th century.

Arudo dorax often finds a home alongside river banks, and in Los Angeles massive amounts of it wash up on the beach after big storms. The plant’s prodigious spread and ability to crowd out native species puts it on many a bad-ass plant list. Homegrown Evolution’s attitude is–like it or not it’s here, so we might as well learn to work with it, just like the folks I saw the other day who repurposed this abandoned (and wind damaged!) gas station for an impromptu barbecue.

Sadly I wasn’t able to get a picture of them, but the BBQ smelled good.

Feral Tomatoes on the Bayou

While walking along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, just next to a concrete plant and under a bridge we stumbled on some feral tomatoes. We theorized that some fast food meal pitched in the gutter found it’s way into this meandering, heavily industrialized waterway. The tomatoes separated from the cheeseburger, floated to the surface of the water and were deposited on the muddy banks of the bayou. Houston’s hot and humid climate sprouted the seeds and the result is the plant below.

Back with more foraging tales soon once we’ve returned from Texas.

Mallow (Malva parviflora) an Edible Friend

In late February, towards the end of our winter rains, it’s high weed season here in Los Angeles–folks in other parts of the country will have to wait a few more months. We await this season with anticipation, since it’s the best time of year to forage for wild edible weeds. We’ll highlight a few of these edible weeds in the next few months beginning today with Mallow (Malva parviflora also known as cheeseweed because the shape of the fruit resembles a round of cheese), which grows in great abundance in lawns and parkways.

Malva parviflora does not have an especially strong or exciting taste, but does make a pleasant addition to salads and can be cooked as a green. Both the leaves and the immature fruit are edible. An assortment of cooking ideas can be found on Of the Field, maintained by wild food author and self described “environmentarian” Linda Runyan. A Turkish blogger has a recipe for mallow and rice here. We’ve used mallow in salads, and it would also do well cooked Italian style in a pan with olive oil, garlic and some hot peppers to spice it up a bit.

Malva parviflora comes from the old world–the ancient Greeks make it into a green sauce and use the leaves as a substitute for grape leaves for making dolmas. Modern Mexicans also make a green sauce with the leaves. If any of you readers have recipes, please send them along.

If that ain’t enough, the mucilaginous nature of the plant can be exploited by making a decoction of the leaves and roots to use as a shampoo, hair softener, and treatment for dandruff.

And yet, like so many other gardening books, the oh-so-bourgeois Sunset Garden Guide only tells you how to get rid of mallow, and fails to note its many useful qualities.

An Echo Park Weed Salad

There’s nothing like a little urban blight to produce an excellent salad. While not impoverished (not unless you consider dilapidated $600,000 bungalows a sign of destitution), our neighborhood ain’t exactly Beverly Hills, meaning that in terms of landscaping it’s a little rough around the edges. And the edges–parkways, cracks in the asphalt, neglected plantings were, on this warm February day, overflowing with weeds. Edible weeds.

We explored these edible edges this afternoon with visiting Chicago artist Nance Klehm, who proved that many of these weeds are not only edible, but tasty, in a lecture and food foraging walk she led that was sponsored by the innovative art space Machine Project. Gathered on the walk were wild mustard, mallow, shepherd’s purse, dandelions, oxalis, prickly lettuce, lamb’s quarters and a lemon and orange found overhanging the sidewalk, all of which made for a large and delicious salad.

A highlight was a front yard overflowing with lemony oxalis (Oxalis deppei, pictured on the right behind the chain link fence. Oxalis is sometimes known as Iron Cross Plant because of the shape of its leaves–see the Plants for a Future Database entry on Oxalis for more information). It’s a relative of sorrel, which we have growing in our garden and has a similar taste. Oxalis contains vitamin C, but also contains oxalic acid which can interfere with calcium absorption, though you’d have to eat vast quantities to have an ill effect.

As Klehm pointed out, these weeds know no boundaries or borders. Like all of us in North America, they are interlopers, trespassers and immigrants.

At the end of the walk the class mixed up and shared a bowl of our findings. Klehm will be teaching three classes in February and March: cheese making, fruit wine and vinegar, and pickling. Clickulate here for more information.

Mead!

While we’ve tasted the Ethopian honey wine known as Tej, we’ve never had mead, so we decided to cook up a batch. It’s way too early to tell if we have a tasty beverage or a gallon of home brewed Listerine–it will be many months before the stuff is drinkable. But we thought we’d note how we made it, based on a recipe in Ken Schramm’s book The Compleat Meadmaker.

We downsized the recipe from five gallons to one gallon, figuring that we’ll experiment with a few different small batches rather than taking a chance on one big batch. Here’s how we did it after first sanitizing everything with Idophor sanitizer:

1. Boil 1/5th of a gallon of water (we used bottled water since our tap water is a bit on the heavy side).

2. Add one teaspoon of Fermax (this is a yeast nutrient available at home brew shops).

3. Take the water off the heat and add 3 pounds of honey (we used orange blossom honey) to make what is called the “must”.

4. Add 3/5ths of a gallon of refrigerated water to cool the must.

5. Pitch in the yeast once the must has cooled below 80º F. We used a wine yeast called Lalvin 71B-1122 which we also picked up at our local home brew shop. We rehydrated the yeast according to the directions on the package, letting it sit for 15 minutes before we tossed it in the must.

6. We put the must in a used one gallon apple cider bottle and fitted it with a fermentation lock.

Mr. Doug Harvey gifted us with an old hydrometer (used to measure the density of a liquid) which we used to take a reading of 15% on our finished must. When fermentation is complete we’ll take another reading. The difference between the two readings will be the percentage of alcohol in our mead.

A big disclaimer here. We don’t know how well this recipe works, but we’ll let you all know. In the meantime, for those dying to get started, the National Honey Board has some free mead making instructions here (pdf).

Lastly, in our search for mead information, we kept coming across ads for chain mail and peasant pants, and figured out that for some reason mead seems to be unfairly associated with Renaissance fairs. This gives us an excuse to conclude this post with an image from the Texas Renaissance fair:

Turnip Greens via The Silver Spoon

It took us way to long to discover that turnip greens are edible. They’re better than the turnips themselves, in our opinion. So how did we finally figure this out? The answer is by thumbing through a cookbook everybody interested in growing their own vegetables should own, The Silver Spoon*, which has a section devoted just to turnip green recipes.

The Silver Spoon is a 1,263 page cookbook recently translated into English. It’s the Joy of Cooking for Italians, except instead of tuna noodle casseroles and other American cooking abominations, the Silver Spoon will tell you what to do with a cardoon, a carp, or the aforementioned turnip greens among many other edibles. While we appreciate the crusty old Joy of Cooking’s advice on cooking raccoon, The Silver Spoon is so good that we feel like throwing out all the other cookbooks we have.

But back to the greens. Turnip greens have massive quantities of vitamins A, C and K and a pleasant mild taste. The leaves have some barbs on them which disappear during cooking. In past years we have grown an Italian variety called Rapa da Foglia senza Testa or “rabe without a head”. A better name for it would be “turnips without the turnips”, as it’s a kind of turnip green. This year we’re growing turnips for Ms. Homegrown Revolution’s fermentation experiments and the greens have been a side-benefit.

*Note this link will take you to our new online bookstore. Tacky? Perhaps. But we’re capitalists.

How to Catch and Eat a Rat

We certainly have rats around our little Los Angeles compound, but we’ve never considered eating them. Thankfully potty-mouthed survival expert Cody Lundin, author of 98.6 Degrees The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, shows you how in this youtube highlight. If you enjoyed the squirrel melt video we posted some time ago, you’ll love this one as well. And the kids will dig those rat pelts!

It’s always been fun to stick it to the Man

The folks from Dough on the Go! were over the other night and reached into a box of slides we found years ago at a thrift store and never looked at. That box turned up these images showing a previous generation enjoying the “water of life” coming out of what appears to be two different home built stills. Homegrown Revolution applauds the DIY spirit (so to speak) and these images seem an appropriate way to begin the dreaded holiday season.

For info on how to build your own still read our earlier post, or check out our esoteric notions on distillation at Reality Sandwich.