Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Wild Relatives Of Our Supermarket Favorites

Many of the plants I've sampled from the wild have analogues in the produce isle. Of course, there are a couple of plant families that dominate here, but I won't stretch that far and try to compare sunflower seeds to dandelion greens, even though they are members of the same family.

Carrots have a wild version. We know the plant as queen anne's lace. Tall flat white lace-like flowers. Don't believe me? Dig a root and give a smell. Carrot for sure, but a bit spicier smelling. Do yourself a favor though and don't eat the ones that are flowering. You won't like the dry, woody results. Instead, try to find some of the first year plants near these that haven't flowered yet. Queen anne's lace is a biennial, producing the flower in its second year.

Sweet potatoes, which are sometimes mistakenly called yams, are actually not related to potatoes. Real potatoes are members of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory vine. There are wild versions of sweet potatoes, but I have yet to find them here. Instead, work your way to the nearest wetland (p. c. speak for swamp) and look for arrowheads.
These water-loving plants produce tubers along their roots that cook up much like potatoes. Also water lilies produce the same down along the roots at the bottom of your favorite pond. Most of these wild potatoes are best before the plant blooms, or late in the fall long after the flowers have gone.

For you spinach lovers, there are several wild alternatives, but lambs quarters by far is the easiest to find. Once you see it here in the photo I am sure you are trying to remember all of the places you have seen it before. The youngest leaves are the best. Cooks just like spinach, which means it shrinks up a bit, so pick a lot.

One of my favorite ornamental trees, is also a source of a great substitute for snow peas. The redbud tree, as some of you may know, produces a pod that looks much like a pea pod, or small locust pod. If you pick these while they're young, they are great used like snow peas anywhere you would use the commercial variety. The flowers by the way, are also edible and although not very interesting in the flavor department, they look great on top of a salad.

Salsify, is one of those items in the produce market that you may not have tried yet. Commonly called oyster plant, it has an oyster-like flavor when cooked. The plant produces a carrot-like taproot which is what you see in the market. Salsify's other name is purple goatsbeard. There is a local wild relative of this in our area called yellow goatsbeard. Looking much like a tall and larger version of a dandelion, it has the same uses as the purple variety.

As always, be smart and know your plants, and keep away from polluted areas when foraging for goodies. Now why can't we have a northeastern wild coconut?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fofio Gibbons

I was encouraged by some folks at AOL, specifically Kat Kinsman, to write a piece on wild foods. I thought I would post it here first, so here it goes....

I don't know how old I was when I started having a fascination for wild foods, but I can point to a few family activities that caused it. As far back as I remember we used to go pick apples every year at an orchard near Stone Ridge, New York. Always fun, except of course for the inevitable case of poison ivy that followed a few days later. The apples weren't wild, but still the idea of picking something from a tree, and eating it right there got to me.

Another major influence were the wild strawberries and blueberries we picked as kids. The strawberries grew near our home in Woodstock. There were several places where you could pick a dozen or two small wild strawberries quickly with little effort, but a short bike ride away was a meadow that my older brothers Lee and Paul called Sergeant's Field. You could pick a few quarts of the local delicacy there.

The blueberries came from Ice Caves Mountain, near Ellenville in the Shawangunk Mountains. Ice Caves used to be a privately-owned mountain top tourist-trap, but has since become a forest preserve, similar to other Shawangunk Mountain preserves Mohonk, and Minnewaska. Huge blueberry bushes were there. Or, at least they seemed that way to a little kid. Even though I picked the berries with the rest of the family, I never really developed a love for them. I will eat them in muffins and pancakes, but rarely just plain. Still, I was amazed that something that everyone craved came from the wild, and not a store.

It was then that I started to notice the foliage around our house. We had both woods, and a lawn, and something in-between. Wild blueberries, black raspberries, rose hips, beech nuts, wintergreen, wild carrot, spearmint, chives, milkweed, these were some of the plants that I learned to recognize with some help from my mother.

When I was 16 I think, I was away at scout camp one summer and decided to take a wilderness survival course. We learned many of the plants that I already recognized and a few more. solomon's seal, arrowhead, and groundnut to name a few. We lived for two days on wild plants, hand-caught trout, and frogs legs. From that point on, any time I saw a wild plant I didn't recognize, I had to know what it was, and what it was used for, if anything. Even the inedible ones fascinate me sometimes.

So, let's get seasonal! First though, a disclaimer: I don't recommend eating anything without checking a good field-guide, or other reliable resource. A good book for beginners is Peterson's Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Also, the Euell Gibbons books are a good read, but a little dated. Be smart! Start with the easiest to identify. With mushrooms for example, the easiest to start with are varieties that can almost never be mistaken for anything else, like puffballs, chicken mushrooms, or morels. Read about dangerous plants in the guide, and learn to recognize them. Also, plants that grow near toxins, tend to absorb them. Try to pick well away from busy roads, and other areas where the hustle and bustle of our day to day lives has had a negative effect on the soil, groundwater, and air.

This time of year, foraging is still possible. Mostly though, finding wild edibles in the winter depends on knowing where the remaining dead stalks of the plants from the fall are. Jerusalem Artichoke is a good example, as many of us will recognize the plant from the picture here, and know where some dried up stalks are this time of year.

Looking in the late summer, early fall, like a small headed sunflower, the Jerusalem Artichoke actually has nothing at all to do with Jerusalem. The name Jerusalem is believed to be a corruption of the word Girasole, which is the Italian word for sunflower, and although it is in the same general plant family as the Artichoke, it isn't anything like it. What is eaten on the Jerusalem Artichoke is the underground tuber. Looking like a long, thin, irregular potato, they can be eaten raw or cooked. If you want a good look at the commercial variety for identification, look for them in the supermarket where they may also be referred to as Sun Chokes. Raw, they can be sliced into salads. They have a crunchy texture, and nutty flavor, similar to a water chestnut. Cooked, they can be used like potatoes, either sliced thin and fried like potato chips, or peeled, and roasted whole like a potato. They don't take well to mashing though, as they end up with a lumpy, watery texture.

Nutritionally, they hold up too. Jerusalem artichokes have 650 mg. potassium per 1 cup (150g) serving. They are also high in iron, and contain 10-12% of the RDA of fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper (USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Also, Jerusalem Artichokes contain a starch known as Inulin. Inulin is not digested like ordinary starch by most people, making it a good choice for people who have trouble with carbohydrates.

My only warning about these tubers is to resist the temptation to bring them home and plant them in your own garden. They will take over rapidly, and are almost impossible to eradicate once they do. Maybe that's another source of the name artichoke, since they tend to choke-off any other plants they compete with.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Captain.... There be lambs here!!

Female sheep (ewes) usually have one or two baby lambs at a time. Sometimes however they are known to have more. Usually the extra ones do not get taken care of. Natural selection will find the smallest lamb being abandoned by its mother. So, sheep farms will raise these orphans themselves by bottle feeding them, hence they are referred to as bottle lambs.

Marti was offered a chance to be a foster mom to a pair of abandoned lambs last Thursday. She bottle feeds them every four hours, and keeps them entertained and clean. I have to say, its not an activity for just anyone. Its a lot of work! These two will be with her for two weeks.

I couldn't help though as I got to the house Friday night, recalling the line from Star Trek Four, when Scotty successfully beams the whales into the ship, Captain... There be whales here!!

Strange, yes... but overwhelmingly cute! M a a a a a a a a a !!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's been a long time......

I haven't posted in a very long time. I apologize to all three of my regular readers! To anyone that stumbled here that doesn't know me, the main reason for my absence was the passing of my older brother Paul in December after a fight with cancer. More information about him, and the amazing support from all of his friends can be read here at a website I set up for him:

As for me, I am still working for AOL in Manhattan. I will try to post a bit more now, and there is always something to write about. Same thing with my freeware blog (link on the sidebar). Bye for now. See y'all soon!