Articles in Technique

Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

Picture 1 of 4

Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

Read More
Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

Read More
Mt. Tam cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Blessed with a unique terroir and distinctive indigenous cheese varieties, Northern California’s organic dairy farmers and cheesemakers are aiming to grow the region’s reputation as a hotbed of artisan cheese.

On a recent evening at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, along with Sunset magazine food editor Margo True and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, were celebrating the release of their book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.”

Importance of milk

The word “milkshed” appears often in the book, and Conley explained it simply refers to the place where a region gets its milk. The milkshed of West Marin County, just outside San Francisco, for instance, enabled and inspired Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses. Specifically, it was the milk from the Holsteins and Jerseys on the Straus dairy that gave the Cowgirls their start in cheese making.

In the early 1990s, small family dairies were facing financial challenges that threatened their survival. Second-generation farmer Albert Straus had the idea to transition his lands and herd to a certified organic operation; his neighbors thought he had lost his mind.

At the time industrial agriculture was expanding, causing milk prices to be too low to sustain family farms. Straus thought that going organic would be the key to a viable business model because of the higher profit margin such methods yield. He also believed organic methods would be a more environmentally responsible way to manage the farm.

In 1994, the Straus Family Creamery became the first dairy west of the Mississippi River to go organic. It was Albert Straus’ vision that set the table for the artisan cheese movement in Northern California: to create a product that would save agricultural lands and dairy farming in the area.

The Cheeses

Conley and Smith traveled to England and France and observed regional cheese making. Often an appellation is created that reflects the flora and surroundings of an area, (like Comte cheese from France), and the Cowgirls realized that they had the ingredients to do this at their creamery in bucolic Point Reyes Station, outside San Francisco.

“We had this beautiful milk,” Conley said. “It’s all about the milk, the health of the animals and the beautiful pastures. We realized we had [those elements of an appellation] in our own place.”

Picture 1 of 6

Asparagus, leeks, potatoes and celery for spring soup. Credit: Brooke Jackson

So using Straus milk exclusively, they started out making fresh cheeses like quark, cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Their first effort at an aged cheese was called Mt. Tam, after the landmark mountain in Marin County near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The cheese is a triple cream and is meant to showcase the spring milk from the herd at the dairy. It is a buttery, mellow, approachable cheese that won second place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010, and it is considered Cowgirl’s signature cheese. Next was Red Hawk, a rich and savory cheese with a pungent aroma and a red rind, also an award winner at the ACS, the Los Angeles County Fair and other competitions.

Years later, more inspiration came during the recession. They wanted to make a big, utilitarian cheese for daily use, a cooking cheese similar to fresh Asiago, which was requested by their friend Judy Rodgers, from Zuni Café in San Francisco. The initial efforts didn’t work well, so they made successive batches, bringing tastes to the farmers market for customers to give their opinion. The final recipe is a washed rind, semi-hard cheese that is versatile for cooking and eating. It won gold at the California State (2011) and the Los Angeles County Fairs (2010).

The Cowgirls also make four seasonal cheeses using organic milk from Taverna Dairy in the small hamlet of Chileno Valley. The Taverna herd is all Jersey cows; and the cheeses, although made by a recipe similar to Mt. Tam, have a very different taste profile because of the milk and its terroir.

In addition to their own cheeses, Conley and Smith collaborate, support and promote artisan, farmstead cheesemakers throughout the region. Using the model of Neal’s Yard in London, they sell these local products at their cheese counters in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Point Reyes Shop, believing that helping the artisan cheese movement grow is crucial to the future of the small family farm and to agriculture in this country in general.

The Future

To that end, Straus told the crowd at the Jewish Community Center that he and the Cowgirls were looking at creating an organic processing hub.

“What we’ve done in Marin and Sonoma counties is created this model of farming that we are trying to work on how can we revitalize the farming community and get the next generation of farmers in succession farming,” he said.

The Straus dairy, Cowgirl Creamery and maybe other organic producers would partner in one facility. A demonstration dairy would allow the public to see everything from the cow to the finished product. There would be an incubator of sorts for up-and-coming farmers, to help them get established in the business and explore ways to save energy and promote land stewardship.

The Book

“Our book teaches how cheese is made, but not how to make cheese,” Conley said. But “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” is more than just a primer for how cheese is made. There are notes on composing cheese plates, delicious accompaniments to enhance them and myriad recipes that showcase glorious cheese and milk products.

Smith said her favorite recipes are in the chapter called “Ends and Bits,” which was designed to give ideas for what to do with all those pieces that end up in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Her favorite recipe from this section is Parmesan broth, which uses the leftover bits of hard cheese to make a rich, flavorful stock. That stock lends itself to a soup that celebrates spring.

Parmesan Broth

Adapted from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” Chronicle Books 2013

Makes 3 quarts

Ingredients

12 
cups cool water

1
 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 
cups medium-diced onions

1
 cup coarsely chopped carrots

1 
cup coarsely chopped celery

¼ ounce dried mushroom, such as porcini or shiitake

2 bay leaves

3
 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley

About 1 
cup leftover bits of hard cheese and natural rind

Directions

1. In a large pot, bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. While the water heats, use another large pot to melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots, celery and mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.

3. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cheese bits. Let the cheese and vegetables sit on the bottom of the pot for short periods of time, no longer than 10 seconds. This will allow the vegetables and the cheese to brown the bottom of the pot a little. (You don’t want all the vegetables browned, but just the bottom surface needs a little color.) Stir often.

4. When the vegetables and cheese at the very bottom of the pot show some brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, slowly introduce the simmering water to the pot, stirring in just 1 cup/240 ml to start. Stirring constantly, deglaze the pan’s bottom with the hot water to loosen any browned bits. When the pot bottom is clean of any brown, pour in the remainder of the water. Decrease the heat to medium-low and monitor the heat, adjusting the flame so the broth stays at a gentle simmer.

5. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, so the broth doesn’t pick up a scorched flavor. Strain the broth into a very large container or another clean pot and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, you can easily skim the top of any fats. Store this in your refrigerator for up to 3 days or in your freezer for up to 3 months.

Spring Soup With Asparagus, Potatoes and Leeks

Makes 1½ quarts

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large leek, split lengthwise to the root, rinsed well then cut into thin, crosswise slices — about 2 cups

1 cup celery, thinly sliced crosswise

1 bunch asparagus, bottom ¼-inch removed and discarded, tips removed and set aside, remaining stems sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, about 1½ cups

Salt and pepper

1 clove garlic minced

1½ cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced – about 2 medium

4 cups Parmesan broth

¼ cup crème fraiche

Directions

1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add leek, celery and asparagus pieces and sauté until coated with oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

2. Turn heat to low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables until soft but not colored, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and potatoes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3. Add broth, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 grindings of pepper from a mill, stir to combine, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.

4. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, lightly steam asparagus tips until crisp tender. Set aside.

6. Purée the soup using an immersion blender, food processor or traditional blender until smooth.

7. Serve in bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and an asparagus tip on top of each serving.

Top photo: Cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Read More
The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

As New England’s maple sap started to drip in March, David Moore of The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse in Lee, N.H., counted the days until it would stop flowing. Right about the time the maples are tapped out, Moore collects a less sugary sap from slender, white paper birch trees.

Moore, one of the only known commercial birch syrup producers in New England, says his reddish-brown syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. The viscosity at room temperature is slow, albeit a bit quicker than molasses. Its unique taste makes it well suited as an ice cream topping (Moore’s favorite); a glaze, salad dressing or braising liquid ingredient; and an intriguing baked goods sweetener.

In addition to its uses in the kitchen, birch syrup has high market values that could help maple syrup producers supplement future revenue streams in a sustainable fashion, according to researchers at Cornell and the University of Vermont. Its production relies on many of the techniques currently employed in making maple syrup, and birch trees are in rather good supply in the Northeast.

Birch syrup is not entirely a novelty in North America. Native Americans for centuries used it as an anti-rheumatic. Twentieth-century Alaskans also tapped it to fill gaps in wartime sugar supplies, and birch syrup production has become a cottage industry there. Still, last year’s 5,000 gallons of domestically produced birch syrup were just a drop in the bucket compared with the 3.25 million gallons of maple syrup produced.

Chef Evan Mallett of Black Trumpet bistro in Portsmouth, N.H., says Moore’s syrup has a rich, deep and slightly resinous quality that makes it suitable as a finishing syrup and a glaze for grilled chicken or pork. Mallett’s seasonal menu features brioche Texas toast, a thick slice of house-made bread stuffed with roasted mushrooms and cheese and served with huitlacoche (fungus that grows on ears of corn) butter, candy cap mushroom oil and a few drops of birch syrup.

“I like it on pancakes too, but it’s pretty expensive to slather on,” Mallett said.

The going rate for a quart of birch syrup is $78, compared with $10 for Grade A maple syrup. The selling price is very attractive, said Moore, who last year charged $25 for 8-ounce jars and sold out by the end of May. Moore sells his product at a half dozen locations in New Hampshire and will be taking some mail orders this year if supplies last.

“Making birch syrup takes more energy than making maple syrup,” explained Moore, who collects 100 to 120 gallons of sap (he typically gets about 5 gallons a day from each of his 170 taps) to make one gallon of birch syrup. Maple syrup requires only 40 gallons of sap per gallon of syrup.

Picture 1 of 3

Birch syrup tastes like a mild, slightly acidic molasses with a hint of raspberry. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Abby van den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center said the profitability of birch syrup production in the Northern Forest — the region that stretches from Maine through northern New Hampshire and Vermont into northern New York — in the past has been limited due to the fact that the low sugar content of birch sap (about 1% compared with 2% in maple) means producers need lots of evaporator fuel to concentrate the sap to syrup density.

But she argues that reverse osmosis, a process used in Alaskan birch syrup production that concentrates sugar densities (to 8% or greater) in the sap before it goes into the evaporator mitigates that hurdle. Modern sap collection techniques such as using a vacuum also help to increase the sap collection during the short three- to four-week birch sap season.

Moore has considered using reverse osmosis, but he currently processes sap in a 3- by 12-foot double-panned evaporator inside the wooden sugar shack he built himself. He uses a team of draft horses to help haul the firewood (ash, hickory, maple and oak) needed to fuel the evaporator. The new reverse osmosis machine would require him to run power to the sugarhouse. He estimates adding reverse osmosis would cost $7,000. “It could be a tough sell for me,” Moore said.

Neither van den Berg nor Michael Farrell, director of Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program’s Uihlein field station in Lake Placid, N.Y., could provide more than anecdotal evidence that maple syrup producers are clamoring to make birch syrup.

At a maple syrup taste test he conducted for maple syrup producers earlier this year, Farrell threw birch syrup into the mix. When he asked for a show of hands from those who liked the taste of New England birch syrup, not one went up. The producers then were offered a taste of birch syrup made with reverse osmosis. “Nearly everyone changed their mind,” Farrell said.

“This altered process gives birch syrup a wider range of flavor that should appeal to more people. They’ve just got to be willing to taste it,” he said.

Chewy Ginger and Birch Syrup Lumberjack Cookies

Yes, birch syrup is expensive, but it adds an interesting twist to these spicy chewy cookies that people won’t place until you tell them. Think of it as money well spent for tea time conversation.

Makes 24 cookies

Ingredients

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon mustard powder

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup unsalted butter (1½ sticks), room temperature

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

½ cup birch syrup

⅓ cup finely diced candied ginger (optional)

Granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk together flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, allspice, salt and black pepper.

3. Beat butter and sugar together in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Add egg and birch syrup. Mix to combine well. Stir in dry ingredients. Stir in candied ginger, if using. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

4. Roll dough into 1½-inch balls and then roll them in the raw sugar. Arrange on the baking sheets and gently flatten them with the bottom of a flat glass. Bake until set and crinkled on top, about 12 minutes.

Let the cookies sit on the baking sheet for 2 minutes and then remove them to a rack to cool completely.

Top photo: The Crooked Chimney sugarhouse where Lee, N.H., resident David Moore boils down paper birch sap to make birch syrup. Credit: Christine Burns Rudalevige

Read More
Dandelion miso soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”

I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”

It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.

Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.

Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.

In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.

Dandelions wintering in the garage

Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.

Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.

I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.

I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”

Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.

After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.

Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions

Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.

Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month.  I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.

Dandelion Miso Soup

Serves 1

Ingredients

2 cups water

2½  tablespoons white or yellow miso

2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops

Directions

1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.

2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.

3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.

Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.

Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

Read More
Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac, and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty

As a forager who lives in a place with a definite off-season, I still manage to fill the winter months with wild food-related activities. Looking out the window of my Colorado office this month, the landscape alternates between snowy white and stricken brown. Today, the wind blew with such force that I found my trash can having a tea party with its friends two blocks from home. There just aren’t many wild edibles that I could forage right now aside from conifer needles.

Sure, I can pick handfuls of cold-hardy greens in the dwindling months of autumn and again when spring leisurely awakens. But the meat of my foraging season occurs between April and September, when plants grow with such urgency here at high altitude that I spend nearly all of my free time picking and processing at a numbing pace. During the foraging off-season, I’m still able to accomplish much as a wild foods enthusiast since it is the perfect time for study and planning.

When the wild plants are bountifully growing, I’m careful to preserve them for the winter. I dry big tins full of nettles and linden flowers. The freezer fills up with blanched greens, and the shelves get lined with stonecrop pickles and elder cordial. Rows of half-gallon jars filled with dried porcini are my pride and joy.

Foragers taking stock and studying botany

My goal is to eat from wild foods as much as possible for the entire year, especially from abundant and invasive weeds. Come late winter, I’m able to analyze my stocks. I take careful notes on which plants I’d like to harvest more in the coming year, and also which recipes or foods aren’t being eaten with enthusiasm. This helps me adhere to the second rule of foraging (the first being never eat a food you’ve not identified), never take more than you can use.

This year, I’ve found that I didn’t pick nearly enough linden flowers to support my love of linden tea. Because linden mostly grows as an ornamental locally, there will be no problem with harvesting more next year. On the other hand, I seem to be the only one who eats the wild mustard kimchi, so I will plan for a smaller batch come spring, even though the plant is an invasive and can be picked freely.

Perhaps the greatest luxury that down time affords me as a forager is the ability to study. I check enormous stacks of books from the library, everything from foraging guides to cookbooks, and novels, too. Seeing the words and projects of others fills my sails with inspiration and sends me off in new directions of exploration.

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Winter is my best opportunity to dive headlong into the study of botany. I came to foraging through a love of food, so studying botany with seriousness after falling in love with wild plants is a bit backward. I wish I’d known more about botany from the outset. Being able to recognize similar characteristics among plant families and unlocking the meaning of Latin binomials opens  the world of foraging and makes learning new plants infinitely easier.

Studying botany needn’t been intimidating. I highly recommend starting with a book called “Botany in a Day,” by Thomas Elpel. While you may not be able to learn it in a day, any tidbit you can learn about how to accurately describe plants can be very helpful. Being able to determine something as basic as whether the leaves on a plant are opposite or alternate gives you a huge head start in identification.

One of my favorite challenges of the off-season is going for walks and trying to identify dried brown plant remains, and trees without leaves. It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant when it is in flower, it is much more challenging to identify its dried skeleton. But if you can do so, it may help you scout a new location. The same goes for being abile to identify a tree by bark and bud alone. A fellow forager memorized all of his local trees in the summer, and in the winter, he’d practice identifying them by bark alone, calling out their names as he passed them on bike.

Filling notebooks with adapted recipes for foraged ingredients

The final piece of my off-season puzzle is brainstorming recipes. Often, in the heat of summer, I’m too busy teaching or processing large batches of wild foods to spend as much time as I’d prefer coming up with new recipes. In winter, I take the time to really consider my favorite ingredients, and how best to highlight their unique flavors. I have a notebook divided into four sections, one for each season. When I come up with a recipe idea, I write down the basic concept, and note where the idea originated. That way, come harvest time, when my attention is elsewhere, I’m able to open up to the appropriate season and see a list of recipe ideas, ready to go. I take the greatest amount of inspiration from my friends. Some of my closest friends right now are Persian, Mexican and Indian, and I can see the flavors they’ve introduced to me seeping into my own recipes. I love to look at a traditional recipe, as made by a friend, and spin it in my imagination with local wild ingredients.

It used to be that winter made me sad. Especially in the digital age, when I could see the harvests of people living in places where there is something to forage all year long. I’ve come to learn that my own off-season can be productive, even if I’m not able to harvest plants. I’m able to take inventory of my pantry, study botany and brainstorm recipes for the coming year, none of which I have time to do when the plants are exploding with the growth of summer.

Top photo: Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty

Read More
Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.

For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.

I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.

So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.

1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.

2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

Andrew Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute

3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.

4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.

6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.

7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.

8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.

9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.

10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?

This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.

I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?

Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock —  is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.

Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA

Read More
Manuela Zoninsein and a Gigi Peng, a friend, take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein

For the last eight months, I have been growing vegetables on a 323-square-foot plot of land rented from a Chinese perma-culture farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing. The farm, organized by a community-supported agriculture nonprofit called Shared Harvest, was based in Changping district nearly 25 miles north of Tiananmen Square.

“Perma-culture” or “circular farming” integrates animals (pigs, lambs, chicken, fish) and their waste into the ecological loop of growing fruits and vegetables, which in turn feed the animals as well. From the crops I gathered each biweekly visit, I was able to almost entirely sustain myself, minus the tofu, starches and seasoning I continued to purchase from supermarkets. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, my first experience managing agricultural land left me feeling ever more thankful. Thankful for the increased knowledge of how food is grown and thankful for the friendships I’ve developed, as well as a renewed appreciation of the difficult work farmers do, worldwide.

Escaping the city for community farms

Just as the back-to-the-farm movement has been picking up speed in the United States, in China there is a similar trend with community farms. I had been receiving food deliveries from the CSA and when they began to rent plots of land, offering to train and provide all necessary tools and seeds, I took the opportunity.

Turns out I was the only foreigner to jump at the chance to lease the land. All the other “gentlemen farmers” were upper-middle-class Chinese, who would drive out each weekend in their luxury vehicles and SUVs with their three-generation families and work their plots together. I, meanwhile, would get myself out there via a crazy combination of bike, subway, bus and foot, commuting up to 2½ hours each way. Still, I remained committed. Many of the other casual farmers, like me, enjoyed the chance to get out of the concrete eyesore that is Beijing, though the air quality was rarely better out there than in the city center. The region’s smog is partly attributed to industrial coal burning around Beijing. Similarly, we plot holders were all looking to ensure a source of safe food for ourselves amid a slew of adulterated food cases in China. In many cases, though, there was a deeper desire to “get back to the farm” where so many Chinese had lived and worked in earlier generations.. In the rush to urbanize, modernize, and become wealthy, many had been left feeling spiritually or socially lost.

Picture 1 of 4

A group of friends weeding at the Shared Harvest farm. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

It took me months comparing my ugly, unruly first-timer plot to the well-tended ones around mine before I realized that many of these nouveau riche had previously been farmers. It didn’t hurt that they also came with several laborers ready to work: grandparents, their children and then grandchildren all toiling together. While they all played and laughed in groups, I at first went out solo and learned to appreciate the kind of slow, wearying, physically-demanding labor that accompanies manual farming. As a single foreign female sweating and struggling over a plot of land that could easily feed a family of four, however, it meant I was a curiosity who attracted the attention and help of the others on the farm. Generally, this meant the two families of farmers who were hired to live on the land and oversee farm management, focusing especially on the animals, the larger plot, which grew food for CSA delivery, and the kitchen where many groups would eat lunch after a long morning of work. These incredible people taught me the basics needed to grow food.

There were also scores of young Chinese volunteers from universities or recent graduates who came to community farms from around the country looking for a mission to trumpet, seeking a change of pace from exhausting city life, or just hoping to learn a new skill until they found the next job.

Cooking up the bounty

From these two groups — farmers and volunteers — I learned an incredible amount. For one, I had a chorus of Chinese chefs indicating to me how best to cook each surprising new vegetable that would emerge, week by week, from the soil on my plot. For example, radish leaves work well as a leafy addition to a miso or any other soup; and green beans, if the pod skins get too old, can simply be removed and then blanched briefly before getting a good stir-fry with rice.

Additionally, I began to memorize the “qi” quality of each ingredient: those that cause the body to heat up, and those that cause the body to cool. Most intriguing were conversations about the role food plays in our lives, and how modernization has moved humans away from direct access to safe, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner.

In that transition, our knowledge about soil, plants, seasons and how food is grown was replaced by other types of information: food brands, advertising campaigns, famous restaurants and chefs. Deep into these conversations, while weeding the soil or furrowing the field in preparation for sowing seeds, I came to feel united with a certain group of people in our commitment to learning about our food from its source. It didn’t matter that we were speaking Mandarin in Beijing’s rural districts. It could have been any farm on the outskirts of any city, be it New York, Rio de Janeiro or Paris.

Top photo: Manuela Zoninsein and friend Gigi Peng take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein

Read More