Friday, May 27, 2011

Smoky Cheese, Hemlock Tea and Other Camping Tidbits

E. and I were lucky enough to sneak off for a night of camping this week, and the jaunt was full of tasty, woodsy treats. I don't know which I liked better, the cheese that we (sort of) smoked by the campfire, or the Indian cucumber, a native, wild edible tuber with a texture like a water chestnut and a mild, sweet, earthy taste.

Of course one Indian cucumber isn't much to eat. For contrast, here it is compared to a cucumber cucumber.

Eating the root means ending the life of the plant, so harvest this one with care and only from places where plenty of others exist. I suppose the best time to find them would be in the fall, when the (inedible) berries can be planted in the hole you've just exhumed the root from, hopefully ensuring the survival of a new individual. Again, you can't quite live on this stuff. We mostly ate sandwiches.

I also made some hemlock tea by heating a stone in the fire to boil the water. I'm not going to lie to you: the mug I made the next day with a Jetboil was a lot better. But the hot stone technique always recalls my first such experience, and the thrill of it.

Blueberry flowers were in bloom and with their sweet smell and zaftig bell shape, they brought the fruit to mind. But I'll have to wait -- and possibly fight bears -- for that.

The prettiest view of the trip was not a mountaintop vista but a little something I noticed nearly underfoot. Isn't he/she a beaut?

Note: I didn't eat it.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Spring Foraging

The onset of incredible weather has me venturing beyond my typical morning dog routine and into the woods for wild edibles.

Usually I just take Oli, the official dog of T&F, down to a ball field near our apartment, but neither of us are content to run around on manicured grass with so many exciting things to smell, chase, roll in, and eat out in the brush.

I've found all sorts of trail nibbles, like faintly sweet dandelion flowers and not faintly onion-y onion grass, but this morning I decided to assess the stinging nettle situation. I thought I'd seen them once, except they didn't sting me. I did a little research and learned that not everyone experiences the sting, however I did recall feeling a faint tingling sensation on my upper thighs as I chased the dog through a particular thicket, wearing fairly short running shorts, as it were.

This morning I went back to the same spot, snapped some pics of the plants in question, pinched off a few samples (at this time of year only the tops remain worth eating), and whacked the leaves against my bare, upper thighs. No, I was not immune everywhere. Yes, these were stinging nettles.

Note the old bottles: I always take something bad out of the woods when I take something good. Back home I compared my samples with a few guides and realized why I'd had a hard time identifying the plants. There were two varieties, slender nettles ...

...and wood nettles.

While there I also grabbed some curly dock (a nettle remedy) and Japanese knotweed.

I never eat anything I can't be sure about, and after consulting the guides and my burning thighs, I concluded that I had the right plant(s). I blanched all four of my finds separately. I felt no sting when handling the plants, though if you look carefully you'll see one of the tiny hairs sticking out above the curve of my knuckle.

I like knotweed as a rhubarb replacement (we made a nice crisp with it recently) but disagree with its reputation as an asparagus stand-in: asparagus is just too sweet, too ethereal, to be swapped with this stuff. My sense is that it would be best to cut the acidity (think sorrel -- both smack of oxalic acid) with something rich, like cheese. However, if you think of it as its own thing, you can get into knotweed as a distinctively squishy, tangy, hollow, tubular vegetable.

The dock and the two types of nettles were all fairly beefy: the texture was on the meaty side as far as greens go, the flavor quite hearty, like spinach and even more like calaloo, aka amaranth. The dock had a bit of acidity but nowhere near the knotweed, and I found the slender leaf nettles to be a little lighter and sweeter than the wood nettles. However all were superb.

Once I'd tried everything plain, I felt I could move on. I squeezed the dock and nettles dry and slipped them into the center of a chive blossom laden one-egg omelet along with schmear of ricotta. God, it was good.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sonoran Mouthfuls, Part II: Jordan and Autumn's Yard

Mesquite was perhaps the most meaningful thing I ate in AZ, but there were plenty of other terroir-laden delicacies. Like the tepary beans and chiles that my friends Jordan and Autumn grew in their garden.

I left the teparies (above) soaking and am curious to hear how they turned out. I rehydrated a few kinds of their chiles (below), which ended up in a salsa. The liquid they'd plumped in made for some piquant agua fresca.

Much as I love heirloom New England produce, it just doesn't thrill me to the core like the stuff you can grow in places like Tucson. Of course this is probably just the allure of the exotic, and if I lived in the Southwest I'd be pining for native sweet corn or fresh Duxbury oysters. Hmm, now that I write that, I'm already pining.

That's how Jim Verrier of the awesome Desert Survivors plant nursery feels (read that sign if you can). Surrounded by a sea of Sonoran-style Mexican cuisine, he sounded like he'd sell his soul for some New England tomatoes grown in our region's acidic soil. I didn't even know that we had acidic soil. When comparing New England to Arizona, I guess the grass is always more acidic, or less existent, depending on whether you're looking east or west.

In two drip-irrigated raised beds in the backyard, Jordan and Autumn also grow chard, tomatillos and native tobacco. Amaranth pops up on its own volition in the rest of the yard, and the house came with an old, established pomegranate tree and another volunteer just starting to poke up.

Though they live in a neighborhood notorious for its lawns, they ripped up the insatiable grass, mounded the earth to replicate the desert terrain, and reintroduced native plants like ocotillo and wolfberry. The ocotillo was particularly hard to squeeze into the car on the way back to from the nursery.

While sitting in the yard one morning of my recent visit, Autumn presented me with a glowing-green smoothie. I recall that it had almond milk, mango, banana, spinach and mint, and it couldn't have been a more stark yet complimentary contrast to the hot, dry, dusty surroundings. One sip and my temperature plummeted, partly from the frozen fruit, partly from the menthol.

I had entered the garden entranced by the tough, scrubby, desert crops. The beans and hot peppers. But to be perfectly honest, is was the cool, fruity smoothie that really hit the spot. I wonder if, as chili peppers are to Chengdu, the smoothie is to Tucson: a stranger from a faraway land that has found its spiritual home?

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Whole Grains Galore

See below for my article in today's Globe about the new book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck. And definitely try the wheatberry fool recipe.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Sonoran Mouthfuls

I just flew back from Arizona and boy are my arms tired: from shoveling delicious, place-based foods into my mouth, that is.

Thanks to great friends in the area and a couple of exciting writing assignments, I was able to scratch beneath the surface of the local cuisine, going deeper than lollipops with scorpions in them, or prickly pear candies in which actual prickly pear content is vastly outnumbered by corn syrup and colors followed by numbers.

I ate many delicious things in Arizona, like sweet potato enchiladas with tomatillo salsa (really, blogger? you don't recognize the word tomatillo?) at the heavenly, jasmine-perfumed outdoor patio of La Cocina in Tucson. I also loved LC's cocoa diablo, essentially a Mexican hot chocolate spiked with tequila, a pairing that had somehow eluded me until this late in life. So many years, wasted.

I hope to never forget the sweet and starchy plantain tamales at Cup Cafe, but true to my love of minimalist cuisine and foraging, the ultimate mouthful from my week in the Sonoran Desert was picked up off of the ground.

Mesquite, my desert communion. I crunched on a dried pod at Tumacácori after having read much about this exotic staple. It tasted like marshmallows.

I could not believe that this flavorful food was made by a plant with nothing more than sand, sun and a few drops of rain each year. Mesquite really puts the "manna" in "galactomannan."

Sadly, the taste of this tree is better known by its charcoal, which can only be obtained from a dead mesquite. Imagine if every time you saw the word "mesquite" (as in "ROCKIN' TEQULIA-LIME-MESQUITE CRAZY WINGS!!!") it referred to the aromatic flour produced from mesquite pods, a drought-resistant, mineral-rich, low-glycemic index, at-risk food.

Mesquite trees grow throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico and are a source of food, shade, fuel and nitrogen-fixation for the indigenous peoples that long have lived without air conditioning or golf courses where cities like Phoenix now sprawl. Due to the massive needs of these misplaced urban centers, water tables drop, making life more difficult for wild plants like mesquite. Which is why precious mesquite flour is listed on Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

On my way out of town, I picked up a pound of it at the Native Seeds shop in Tucson. This is the fine powder you get from grinding and sifting the pods. It tastes like chocolate, it tastes like caramel, it tastes like cinnamon. Dave said it tasted like mole, then I grabbed the bag from him like Frodo snatching the ring back from Samwise. Back in Northampton, the sealed plastic bag still manages to fill the kitchen with those sweet, complex, desert smells.

I'm told it's great on pancakes, but I plan to go through the whole pound by continuing to dip my moistened pinky into the bag and having my taste buds blown one pinch at a time.

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