Strong as the Grass

A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass. ~ Richard Adams

This is a slightly out-of-date blog about foraging, but it makes me happy so I’m posting it anyway. The seasons move quickly, so many of the plants I mention here are starting to go to seed at this point, but I hope someone finds this inspiring or educational anyway!

Wild plant to plate.
Wild plant to plate.

I spent a lot of time as a kid ransacking my parents’ bookshelves for book treats, and there were millions. (Probably the most notable of these was the script of the extremely adult and Pulitzer prize-winning play Angels in America, which I read over and over until I could quote entire passages, totally blasted my eleven-year-old neurological development, and turned me immediately into the bleeding-heart liberal I still am today.)

One of my all-time favorite finds was Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus. The title, for me, still conjures up an image of a bearded hippie, magnifying glass in hand and a look of blood in his eye, creeping through the hedges towards an unsuspected asparagus plant. Which I think is the point. Armed with this cheeky and reverent tome, written in its grand old voice, and a copy of the late great Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain (similar theme, totally different age-appropriate perspective), I struck out into the wild with a singular mission: Find things, and eat them. My eyes were always peeled.

Purple deadnettle, a member of the mint family.
Purple dead nettle, Lamium purpureum, a member of the mint family.

On one occasion, I found a bush sporting likely-looking clusters of richly purple berries (“Wild grapes!” I thought, recalling Euell) and filled the pockets of my off-white corduroys, which were then ruined forever. On another, I painstakingly collected acorns from an oak in the woods near my house, pulled the teensy acorn nibs out, boiled them in three changes of water over an hour to remove bitter tannins, and ate them. They were the texture of sad boiled peanuts with a stunningly unpleasant bitter taste. Wine makers use oak barrels to give wine tannins, after all: Oak is the king of bitter. I did not know this at the time. Undaunted, I picked the sunny flowers of dandelions in late spring, dipped them in a batter of egg and flour, and pan-fried them for dandelion fritters. They were okay, but confusing. By the time I reached college, my passion for foraging had mostly fizzled out. (Except for one notable occasion when a mycologist came to visit a class that I was assistant-teaching, held up the biggest most beautiful hen-of-the-woods mushroom I have ever seen, and said “I picked this an hour ago in the woods on this campus.” I actually shrieked in delight—in front of 60 of my students—and in response he gave me the entire mushroom, which I sautéed for dinner that night on my hot plate with great reverence and ceremony. Edible wild fungi are sacred and represent everything right with this planet.)

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset              But all of my old foraging fantasies have been realized since I discovered the quintessentially Baltimore Charm City Farms, and now whenever I go outside everything green looks potentially tasty again. Headed by Victoria and Eric the Mangy White Bushman, Charm City Farms manages a food-forest garden of wild edible plants that is open to the public for harvesting (!!!) and infinite workshops on incredible things like foraging, permaculture, and bushcraft. Victoria and Eric led a wonderful wild edibles workshop on a drizzly Spring day last week, and not only did I learn about a dizzying variety of edible and medicinal plants, but on that very first day I gathered enough to make myself a beautiful foraged lunch when I got home.

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Spring, I learned, is farther along than I thought. (This was a stunning thing to hear since winter turned me into a pale droopy-eyed cave creature who is still struggling to understand that the outdoors isn’t going to try to kill me again until November.) The tiny mustards and cresses that are apparently the first heralds of spring, like pennycress and hairy bittercress, are starting to flower now, becoming spicy as they go to seed. These next few weeks are the best time for tender shoots, which is a great thing for foragers: This is actually the time of year to stalk the wild asparagus.

Victoria introduced us to tiny shoots of Japanese knotweed, a plant I only knew previously as a hazardous invasive to be ripped out by the roots and aggressed against. But at this time of year it is tender, lemony, and delicious raw, and can evidently be used as an interesting substitute for rhubarb. I was charmed by these tiny plants and their unexpected deliciousness. I was reminded that wild chives grow like weeds everywhere, and now I feel that I probably don’t need to put in a supply of cultivated garlic for awhile because it seems like wild chives are never more than a block away no matter where you are.

Red Bud
Victoria the wild plant huntress samples some redbud, Cersis canadensis, right from the branch, while L (who has clearly been foraging forever and has a taste for bitter dandelion greens that greatly exceeds what is normally expected for people her age) observes. Redbud is in the pea family, and its buds taste a bit like peas.
Chickweed
Chickweed, Stellaria media.
Garlic mustard.
Tasty invasive Garlic mustard.

I’ve known that garlic mustard is edible for quite a long time, but every time I’ve sampled it in the past it’s been overwhelmingly bitter. I’m really not one to shy away from garden-variety bitter greens—if some horrible veggie tyrant made me choose only one plant to eat for the rest of my life, it would probably be kale or broccoli rabe. But wild plants have a habit of way, way bitterness, I’m sure because that flavor hasn’t been cultivated out of them for hundreds of years. But at this stage, garlic mustard is still in a tender baby phase. It’s still shockingly bitter, but the bitterness is matched by a pleasant garlic pungency. I’d never known how to identify it in its youth, so when Victoria pointed it out I was very pleased. The youngest member of our group helped me harvest a big bunch of garlic mustard, using an impressive pocket knife. I took the mustard home for lunch.

A bunch of garlic mustard that became my lunch.
A bunch of garlic mustard that became my lunch.
Garlic mustard and wild garlic chives.
Garlic mustard and wild garlic chives.

I felt these two wild plants—the garlic mustard and chives—would be a great foundation for a meal. Bitter spicy veggies crave creamy fat and carbs to balance their flavors, so I settled on white beans, a runny egg, and a toasted slice of Mama Chickpea’s home-made bread that she sent me in the mail! Moms are the best, right?

Washing
Washing off the wild.

chopping

chopped

hot pepper spices

Almost
Garlic mustard, wild chives, and canellini beans finish steaming up while I crispy-fry an egg in olive oil.

Lunch

Here goes a finished meal, the coolest lunch I’ve made in a long time. Plants taken from the wild woods with mom’s homemade bread. Way yum. I do think, in future, that I’ll take more precautions to de-bitter my garlic mustard, because even in its youth it was face-puckering. I detest blanching greens because I feel that bringing water to a boil is generally a waste of my time when I’m going to sauté things anyway, but I think I’ve been overruled in this case. Still, it was absolutely delicious, and the beans and egg set off that plant pungency beautifully. The mustard had the odd quality of turning the oil it was cooked in crazy lime-green, which I’m sure means it was spectacularly good for me. Free food? Check. Nutrition? Check. Childhood dreams of becoming a wild animal? Well, kind of. Or kind of not. But still!

I’ll be posting more foraging-relevant stuff as the season goes on. Happy Spring! Love, Rutabaga

Improvisations in Chocolate

Lately I feel like I’m making up each day as I go along.

I both relish and resent this in the way that I relish and resent adulthood.

What should I be doing right now? Writing a poem? Or writing my Master’s thesis?

If I paint my new room while listening to This American Life, is that a good use of my time? The paint on the roller squishes satisfyingly, the interstitial music is soothing, the color is the perfect seafoam green, but will I regret this?

Should I be a scientist? Or should I be a writer? And how long do I have to do one or the other before I know the right choice? And how do I even start?

In college I was off and on fascinated by improvisation. The best games my friends and I played were make-believe. A space for make-believe is a wonderful thing to take into adulthood. In a game of Manhunt in the cool dead of night, there are moments that feel like someone might actually be out to kill you. When a hand grabs your arm out of nowhere, it’s okay if your screams are filled with real rage. It’s a game, it’s a play, it’s practice. For that moment you can be whoever makes the most sense.

That’s a sort of assuredness I have a hard time finding in my life right now. Who am I supposed to be, anyway? Should I try to make people happy, or should I breeze by them on my way to achieving some antisocial goal? And what am I trying to achieve, anyway?

Oddly enough, I find solace from all of this uncertainty in the kitchen. Like playing games with my closest friends, cooking is like a sandbox. The greatest failure is only inedibility. I can clatter through my cabinets in a furious race towards a goal, leaving a glorious mess in my wake, with only half of an idea of how I’m going to get there, and most of the time I win. What could be better than chaos followed by chocolate?

Like in the case of these brownies I made. When a chocolate craving or tragedy strikes, the only solution is immediate brownies. But immediate brownies are impeded by lack of ingredients. I forgot to get eggs. I stomp around my kitchen, cursing at the cabinets.

But like I said, the kitchen is a sandbox–and there are always new toys to play with and new improvisations to try. A few months ago, my Chickpea mother bought be a tin of cracked golden flax seeds, which sits in my freezer with the purpose of making my morning yogurt nutritious and crunchy. I am the weird hippie’s child who craves chia and flax seeds. But have you heard of “flax eggs”? A tablespoon of cracked gold flax, two tablespoons of water—so the internet tells me—let it sit, and you will have something not only egg-like in texture (chia and flax’s fabulous goop), but egg-like in action for baking.

I made three flax eggs. Watched as they gloopified. Folded them into melted chocolate and flour to turn out an alarmingly stiff batter. Folded in chips and chopped walnuts (the next batch was pistachios—even better). Baked them. And of course, they were perfect. Squidgy, rich, dripping when warm—and just that hint of whole-wheatiness imparted by the flax, which actually goes wonderfully with dark chocolate. In the kitchen as in childhood, and maybe as in life, a mistake doesn’t have to be defeat. A mistake, followed by improvisation, might lead to lower cholesterol, greater nutrition, and slumpy, crunchy, perfect, irresistible brownies.

Not-Quite-Vegan Chocolate Chip Pistachio Brownies

I have made these brownies twice now, and they are perfect because they are delicious, and they are imperfect because soon I’ll find a different recipe that will be better. There’s nothing special about this recipe—in fact, it’s based off a Nestle brownie recipe—but it’s lovely and worth making to brighten your winter. And if you, like me, have flax and no eggs, brownies are still within reach. If you have salted butter, but not unsalted, you can still make brownies. If you have only semisweet chocolate, or only bittersweet, it’s still time for brownies. Pistachios are excellent with chocolate, but walnuts work fine (or anything else. Almonds! Dried cherries! Make it up!).

I apologize for no photos on this post, by the way—I had them, and this week my computer died and I lost all of my photos. I’m embracing chaos and blogging anyway. I will probably be making a batch of these soon to console myself.

1 stick (1/2 lbs) unsalted butter (I have used salted and it was luscious), diced
1 c semisweet chocolate chips
3 eggs OR 3 flax eggs (3 tbsp ground flax + 6 tbsp hot water, allowed to sit 10 min)
1+1/4 c AP flour
1 c granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 c bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 c chopped pistachios (or other chopped nuts)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13 in. baking pan (I used much smaller—roughly 8×8—and increased baking time by about 10 minutes to fine results).

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and semisweet chips over lowest heat. Be careful not to scald the chocolate: do the on-the-burner-off-the-burner-stir-stir melting chocolate dance. Stir constantly until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and save some drips for yourself in the saucepan.

Basically, dump everything else into your mixing bowl. First, add your (flax) eggs. Stir to combine.

Add flour, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda, and stir until everything is evenly distributed. The batter will have the texture of rapidly setting cement. I find it best to use my hands at this point.

Still using your hands, incorporate the bittersweet chips and pistachios. Glob the batter into your baking pan, and bung it in the oven for 18-22 minutes. Your mileage may vary: I baked my brownies until the middle barely jiggled when I shook the pan—which, in a smaller pan, took about 10 mins longer than expected. You want the middle not entirely set, and a toothpick stuck in the center to come out a little crumby. Let the brownies rest on a rack or atop an unlit burner for at least half an hour for things to set up, and then cut into squares and serve to your friends.

Peace Within the City

When I was in high school, my mother (ahem: Chickpea) came in to my 10th-grade English class to do a demonstration on mindfulness. She’s a psychologist, and we were reading something about meditation, I think, so she was a qualified professional. To my surprise (and my classmates’ delight), she brought in a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to aid in her demonstration.

Momma introduced us to the idea of eating mindfully. “Take the cookie in your hand. What is its weight? What does it look like? Consider its smell, and when you taste it, notice how it crunches, and really really taste it.” It was an introduction to how eating—along with any other daily experience, really—can be meditation.

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Right now I’m back visiting New York City, which I only recently left after two years, and I’m constantly reminded of how my relationship with this town is the definition of love/hate: There is nowhere busier or faster than the Big Apple. Today I walked past a man who had a cat balanced on his head, I was propositioned for money no less than five times, and many fascinating conversations and smells were imposed upon me. I also had one of the most transcendent moments of meditative stillness in my life—namely, I had a really great lunch.

I decided to treat myself to a meal at Ootoya, one of my favorite restaurants in Manhattan and the world. I’d only eaten there once before, but the concept is so seductive to me: It’s a classy place that serves what they call “authentic Japanese home-cooking.”

I sat at the wooden bar next to a sophisticated-looking woman who, to my surprise, was eating just the dish I was interested in ordering. I had forgotten the name of it, so I waited until she finished a conversation with the waitress, which was conducted entirely in Japanese and involved several petite, dignified bows from the waist. I asked her what she was eating.

Buta yasai nabe,” she said with lip-smacking satisfaction. “Such classic food for winter.” As far as I can tell, this translates to “pig vegetable pot.”

The waitress brought me a black ceramic cup and filled it with perfectly brewed green tea. I wrapped my fingers around the hot cup and let the steam wash up my nose and into my brain. I noticed that my chopsticks were also ceramic just at the tips, in a way that reminded me of oxford shoes with black-leather toes—textured to grip each bite.

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On first impression, this food might be considered plain; it has none of the crispy breading or thick sauces of most Japanese-American food. Just a soup of light, salty, clear soy broth, a few pure-white strips of fatty pork belly. Lots and lots of spongy napa cabbage. Perfectly tender green spears of broccoli rabe, buttery and bitter. And four melting slices of tomato, poached in broth, whose skins fall away in your mouth.

They are such simple ingredients. No real mystery to their preparation. Meat and vegetables in broth. But in lifting each slippery piece of pork, and dipping it into dashi for extra salt—dashi in which I saw shimmering scales—and bringing it to my mouth; and then transferring one soft piece of tomato to my spoon, quivering like jelly; and then a rag of napa cabbage that had soaked up broth like a sponge; one taste came after another like lines in a poem.

The most captivating part of this meal, though, that really elevated it, was the humble-seeming bowl of sticky white rice at the bottom left. The kitchen at Ootoya gives you the option of topping your rice with something as a tasty accent. I chose hijiki seaweed because, I dunno, I usually like seaweed. Nori is fun. Except this seaweed was like something else altogether. I don’t usually expect to be bowled-over by seaweed, but there you are: The hijiki at Ootoya is positively floral. Every bite of that fragrant rice reminded me of lavender and orange peel. It’s like a magic trick, like smelling a fabulous perfume and having no idea who’s wearing it or how a person could smell that good. Seaweed? Most seaweed tastes like seaweed, so why does this one taste like flowers and fruit? Usually with Japanese food you use the rice as a sort of bed for a saucy main dish, but I ate this rice plain, feeling totally surprised by each bite, until it was gone and my belly was full. Hours later I’m still thinking about the impossible taste of lavender and orange peel and salt.

A meal like this, to me, takes on its own particular rhythm. It reminds me that when food is thoughtful, lunch can be just as compelling as listening to an orchestra play. Cooking is just another art form, and when it’s done well, it forces you to slow down and think about it. Like all art, it gives you a glimpse at someone’s thought process, and that’s one of the best parts of being human, I think. And finally, it clears your mind: A good taste, like an interesting chord, demands your full attention. It’s too beautiful to worry about everything else.

With a few bites of tsukemono pickles, and spoonfuls of chawanmushi—a strange, perfectly smooth savory egg custard—I paid my bill and ended my meditation. For the rest of my day, stressed out by the absurdly crowded and overheated subway and all the noise and bustle of the city, I kept returning to the thought of that slow meal, and the seaweed that somehow tasted like flowers.

~Rutabaga

Winter Abundance: Umami Bowls

Umami bowl with brown rice, roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash, diced tomato, avocado, poached egg, parmesan, and a sprinkle of olive oil.

I am my mama’s daughter, so when the Chickpea of us started grooving on the trend of Abundance Bowls as a way of feeding ourselves, I picked up right along. (Sarah Britton of My New Roots especially does them up seasonally in a way we love.) It really is a good way to go about food, like foraging within the confines of your refrigerator: What goodies can I mix up today?

My bowls have a definite trend, though: as we head into winter, I want a big dose of umami flavor in all of my food. I’m guessing you’ve heard of umami by now given that it was officially accepted as a fifth flavor back in 1985, but it’s a funny one because its perception is a little less definable than sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. If a newly-arrived alien knocked on your door and asked you to show it what human taste is like, you could give it a sampling of white sugar, lemon juice, black coffee, and pure salt, respectively, to teach it about the classic four. But to present umami, you might have to give it a try at a few different foods. Beef, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, a few slivers of Parmesan cheese: give these to your alien, and tell him that umami is the taste that all of them have in common. It coats your tongue, almost more a feeling of fullness than a taste.

I guess when I think about it umami has always been my favorite flavor: I have much more of an umami tooth than a sweet one. Rather than cereal for my breakfasts, I crave mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The funny thing is that a sense of umami is your tongue and brain reacting to a chemical presence of glutamate, the salt of an amino acid present in many of our favorite savory foods. Our lives are just reactions to sensory information about the world, which all comes down to chemistry anyway, and taste is no different; but it does strike me as funny that a taste so many of us associate with comfort (a feeling that probably began with our first sips of glutamate-rich human milk) is, like everything else, simply the brain reacting to a chemical.

Better living through chemistry: It’s snowing outside for the first time this year, and we all should eat things that comfort us. To me, that means lots of umami. I make it a point to separately prep lots of umami-rich foods and have them in my fridge, ready for bowls; despite umami’s rep for being a “meaty” taste, many of my favorite umami-bombs are vegetables. Here are a few of my favorite variations from the past month:

Brown rice, arugula, tomato, kalamata olives, parmesan, and a poached egg.
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Brown rice, sautéed kale, tomato, avocado, kalamatas, parmesan, poached egg.
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Yellow quinoa, sautéed onions and bell pepper, roasted kale, kalamatas, and goat cheese, alongside a Baltimore-local can of Resurrection Ale!
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This morning’s variant: Yellow quinoa, roasted kale, sautéed rosemary button mushrooms, tomato, avocado, shaved BellaVitano cheese.

I’m sure you can sense the form by now. Here’s what usually goes into my umami bowl:

Grain: For bulk. Brown rice is good, but I’m mad for yellow quinoa that’s been cooked with a soffrito of half a diced yellow onion to start. Orzo would be good. White rice is the classic bowl of my childhood, especially with butter, tomato, and mushrooms.

Green: I am a kale addict (subject of a future post), so I usually have some baked or sautéed ready in the fridge. Arugula is a another favorite. Use what you like.

Cooked Veg: Roasted squash and other roots, baked brussels sprouts, sautéed peppers, onions, or mushrooms—go wild. Whatever’s in your fridge.

Raw Veg: For me, this is usually one glutamate-rich additive: tomatoes. Technically a fruit. Raw red cabbage would not go amiss here to balance out the heavy denseness of these bowls.

Healthy Fat: Avocado. Extra virgin olive oil. A foolproof poached egg is dynamite because it provides a sauce. A fried or soft-boiled egg would do the same.

Dairy: Usually some grated or shredded hard cheese like Parmesan, Gruyere, or sharp cheddar, or feta or goat—but if you’re having a Julia Child kind of winter day, straight-up melted butter or cream has its place in an umami bowl. The idea is to get tons of nutrition but to also indulge.

Pickled Stuff: This is a wobbly category for me that, for the most part, means kalamata olives because I love them. But if you have, say, artisanal kimchi in your fridge, then 1) you’re a total hipster, and 2) put it in your umami bowl. It will add a note of sharpness that will balance out rich umami flavors. Lemon or lime juice would accomplish the same thing.

Whatever’s in your bowl at this point, it’s gonna be more comforting than a bowl of hot soup, much quicker, and totally personalized to you. So curl up to watch the snow fall out your window, and happy thanksgiving!

~Rutabaga

On Abundance

Gado Gado I have always lived in relative abundance. But until recently, I have never really felt a sense of abundance in my life. That is partly because when I do feel it, even now, it is partnered with guilt. If I have, I must be taking from someone else. That might be a little bit true. But it is also true that if you are aware of the fullness of your life, it is easier to be generous, open hearted and kind.

My lack of perceived abundance probably started with a lack of ease. While I have always had plenty to eat and more than enough things, I have not often been easy in my body or in my consciousness. If you don’t feel easy, you can’t feel full. Or joyful. Or lucky.

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I had a lot of health problems and medical intervention in the first half of my life. My eyes, teeth and foot all required surgeries and years of therapies to function properly; I had horrible allergies and gall bladder disease. As a teenager, I underwent such drastic physical transformation that my own grandmother didn’t recognize me.

My young mom was terribly overwhelmed caring for three kids with health issues and a too-busy-to-help husband; as the oldest, I was the responsible one. I have always felt the anxious need to make sure that everyone around me is ok. And if they are not, I am not. Most of the people around me were not ok when I was a young woman trying to establish a career and a family.

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As a wife and mother, I have worked hard to provide an abundant life for my family. It was and is my incredible good fortune to have married a man who has a wonderful capacity to be easy and full. My two kids are brilliant, beautiful, and miraculous. They are young adults now, and I get to sit back and rake in the richness as I watch them shape their lives; it fills my soul. My work as a psychologist heals me as I help others. I have learned to care for my body and mind properly. And, in the last few years, I have learned to find ease. For the first time, I do feel a sense of abundance in my life…

So when I started seeing Abundance Bowls on food blogs, I was charmed. The descriptions reminded me of a dish I used to make for myself and my roommates in college. It was from Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, the recipe was called Gado Gado. This book was our bible and Molly was our goddess. Goddess of Abundance.

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Abundance Bowls

This “recipe” should really be about what is plentiful and seasonal. You are aiming for a colorful, textural, nourishing combination of raw and cooked vegetables, one or more protein, carbs if you like, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, herbs, and a sauce. The elements I always include are crispy baked cubed tofu, halved hard cooked eggs (they must be perfectly made, see Cook’s Illustrated), and peanut sauce. I’m going to give you a list of the things I might include in an abundance arrangement, and then a recipe for the sauce. You can make the arrangement in one big bowl, and everyone helps themselves. Or you can do individual bowls in which case you get to avoid that big, mostly empty, picked-over platter at the end (who wants the last lonely hard-boiled egg?)

Arugula
Spinach
Raw or cooked shredded cabbage, red or green
Grated carrot or carrot salad
Roasted beets
Roasted sweet potato or winter squash
Lightly steamed asparagus
Lightly steamed sugar snap peas
Steamed or roasted broccoli or cauliflower
Chick peas
Cooked wheat berries or barley (black barley is great if you can find it)
Cooked quinoa or millet
Whole wheat or soba noodles
Cubed apple or pear
Grapes
Mango
Orange slices
Avocado
Raisins
Peanuts
Cilantro, basil, and/or mint

Peanut Sauce

You can use any kind of peanut butter, but if you want your sauce to be silky, you need to start with a version that is very smooth. The sauce will never be smoother than the butter with which you start. You can also do this with another nut butter or with tahini, or a combination.

½ cup peanut butter
1 tbs. minced ginger (candied ginger will work)
1 scallion, minced
zest and juice of 1 lime
sugar, honey, or agave to taste
soy sauce, to taste

Combine everything and add enough warm water until the consistency is drizzle-able. If you let it stand around for a while or you refrigerate leftovers and it gets thicker, add more water. It’s weird that this sauce never seems to taste watery, but it doesn’t, so don’t worry about that.

I wish you and your family health, happiness, ease and abundance! ~ Chickpea

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