Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Recommendation: Dandelion Hunter

I was barely a few chapters into Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness when I put it down and looked online for author Rebecca Lerner's email address so I could write her and say "I think you're my long lost sister!" This is a girl right after my own heart... although I doubt I would have lasted as long on her initial "eat only foraged foods" challenge.

The book starts as Lerner accepts a challenge to eat only what she could forage for an entire week. In Portland, OR. She lasts longer than most of us would have, barely eating anything while expending a LOT of energy to look for food. By the end, she's even considering eating slugs. I'm glad for her sake she didn't eat them.

This adventure propels her into explaining many of the lessons that those of us who get our food at the grocery store (or even farmers' market) don't realize about foraging. It's seasonal, and you need to plan ahead and gather what you can in times of abundance to store it for times of scarcity.

With her newfound knowledge and the help of many friends, she plans ahead, stores up food, and tries again to eat only foraged food for a week. The second time is a success.

By using her own experiences to construct a narrative, she teaches readers valuable lessons about foraging foods. And, while the book probably won't lead you to eat an all-foraged diet, it will help you view the places around you in a different light. Pollution is more than just a bummer for wildlife when it's poisoning otherwise perfectly edible food. And green, manicured, weedless lawns begin to look like the wastelands that they are, whereas the yard teeming with dandelions becomes a valuable resource.

The book also captures the spirit of Portland - so well, in fact, that I suspect that readers who have never been to Portland will be very confused at Rebecca and the friends she describe in the book, all of whom play their parts in "keeping Portland weird." (For Portlanders, on the other hand, it will probably be refreshing to finally have a book about people you can relate to!)

Lerner also wades into the topic of herbal medicine, something hard to ignore in any discussion of foraging, since so many wild plants are also potent medicines. As she's in Oregon, a major topic is Oregon grape. This also leads into a discussion on the legality and ethics of harvesting wild foods. It's often illegal to gather wild plants, so what does the forager do? Laws are supposedly intended to protect the plants, but Lerner makes the case foragers are interested in maintaining the health of the plants they gather so that they can come back and gather more in the future.

This book is not the be-all and end-all guidebook to foraging. It won't tell you every single plant and how to identify and use it. But it is an incredibly enjoyable introduction to foraging from a very human perspective, and you will learn plenty about some of the most valuable and widely available edible and medicinal plants found in our cities. And honestly, for a beginner, that's probably more valuable than a book that lists everything under the sun anyway.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Native American Cooking: Prickly Pear Cactus Pads (Nopales)

The other day, I noticed a particularly large prickly pear cactus near my favorite hiking trail had grown a bunch of new pads - with plenty of fruit on the way too. Yum!

Today I went back with some metal tongs and a paper grocery bag. Nopales - the Spanish word for this treat - is tricky for obvious reasons, but it's well-worth the trouble.


Prickly pear cacti are in the genus Opuntia. There are several species that grow in Southern California - some native, some not. I know that the ones with the super-tasty green fruits are non-native, and that the native ones have red fruit. Beyond that, I can't tell the difference and don't think it's terribly important. They're all edible. And healthy. And medicinal.

Technically, the pads of the cactus are stems, and the prickles are modified leaves. The pads are covered in tiny, hard to see prickles, which I painfully found out as a kid on a trip to Arizona. It's these tiny prickles that are more of a problem than the big ones you can see.

I went to gather the cactus with tongs and a paper bag that I very carefully selected because I don't want tiny, invisible needles in any of my canvas totes.

The pads that are good to eat are the young ones. After they get old, they grow tough and harder to eat. The fruits aren't ripe yet. When they are ripe, they will be red and they will be easy to twist off the cactus (again, use tongs!).

Fruit - not ripe yet

Young pad - good to eat

The nice thing about harvesting prickly pear pads is that, for each pad you take, the cactus grows two more in its place. It's maybe the only food that responds to supply and demand!

I helped myself to a bunch - which turned out to be about 18 lbs. I didn't want to take more than I could eat. I also did not want to take all of the cactus's new pads, but lucky for the cactus, I couldn't reach many of them even if I wanted to.

Once at home, I put a pad over the flame from my gas stove, still using the tongs. I completely burned off all of the needles - visible and otherwise.

Cactus pad with spikes burned off

The cactus still had little black bumps where the needles used to be. I cut those off.

Already, things were getting slimy. REALLY slimy. My ethnobotany teacher calls nopales "slimy green beans."

(UPDATE: Apparently, I missed an important step. It seems that Mexicans, who commonly eat nopales, boil them in water and then drain them at this point. THEN they use them in their cooking. You can put them in scrambled eggs, burritos, quesadillas, etc.)

I had already cooked a few cups of pinto beans. I planned to eat my nopales together with them. To make them tasty, I began heating some garlic-infused olive oil in a cast iron pan. Then I tossed in a chopped onion.


After the onion had cooked for a few minutes, I added the cactus pad, sliced up. As you can see, there's more onion than cactus. Maybe I should have used two pads instead of one.

Cactus and onions

The cactus, by now, was extremely slimy. The cutting board, the knife, my hands, everything was covered with cactus snot. And it began to gum up the onions and my cast iron pan a bit too. But I think it's supposed to.

Once the onions and the nopales were cooked through, I added some cumin (maybe about a tablespoon), cayenne (1/4 tsp, and that was too much for me), stirred it in, and then tossed the whole mixture in with the beans. Last, I rinsed out the cast iron pan with some water and tossed that water in with the beans too. Add salt, and voila!

It came out OK. It's not the world tastiest food, but I'm a lot more accepting of the flavor because it's so good for lowering blood glucose.

The other medicinal use for this great plant is on sunburns. You can use the inside of the cactus pad like aloe. Just make sure to get the spikes off first. (I highly recommend burning them off, because I hear that if you cut them off and put them in your compost pile, they don't break down as fast as you might like...)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Native American Cooking: Yucca Part 2

This past cooking class was a special one, because a special friend came with me. I've got two amazing kids in my life, and I brought the older one, a 5th grader. She's not into plants like I am, and sometimes she's not the most adventurous eater - but I thought she'd like the class.

I warned my classmates that my friend's kid was coming, and one of them (what a sweetheart!) responded by bringing s'more ingredients to class. Not exactly a Native American food... but the kid loved it...

The official meal of the day was yucca blossoms. In the previous class we cooked yucca stalk.

If you've got kids, then you might know what it's like in our house. I say "might" because some kids just grow up eating healthy food and follow their parents interests in nature, cooking, gardening, health, and all the rest. The kids in my life are not those kids. They like video games, TV, and junk food, and they are pretty much your average, all-American kids. (They are also bright, funny, extremely well-behaved, and loving, and what's more important than that?)

I'm not into punishing kids by forcing them to do stuff they hate. But my 5th grader loves The Hunger Games, and Katniss was a pro at foraging and cooking wild foods. So I thought we'd give my cooking class a try.

As I've said for years, you can't win out over Happy Meals with limp, overcooked broccoli. You need to compete by letting your kids interact with farm animals, build worm bins, go apple picking, and generally engage them in any way you can. Because, trust me, milking a goat and finding eggs from your own chickens are way cooler than some stupid, plastic toy you get with your hamburger.

When we arrived at class, we found a treat - a brand new fire ring, complete with logs for seats and tons of firewood! One by one, the class assembled, and then we went off in search of yucca. This took quite a while, but not because the yucca was hard to find. We just took the scenic route.

We piled into a classmate's pickup, and headed up a mountain on the reservation. We passed TONS of wildflowers:

Owl's Clover (related to Paintbrushes, not Legumes)

Indian Paintbrushes

Tidy Tips, a type of daisy

We stopped and got out of the truck to do a quick search for Jepsonia, a.k.a. Indian Potatoes, because one classmate had missed that lesson. I took off up the mountain on foot to find a patch of clematis vines I knew of since I'd just learned that they are good medicine for migraines.

I left my kid in my friends' hands, and when I came back, the same amazing classmate who brought the s'mores was gently showing her all of the different plants around, and filling her in on exciting details about each of them. I could have hugged him.

We piled back in the truck, and continued up to the very top of the mountain. Again, we hopped out, but this time it really was to harvest some yucca.

We cut down three stalks of Our Lord's Candle yucca, the more common yucca species in the area (although I did spot some Mojave Yucca on the reservation as well), piled back in the truck, and headed back down the hill.

Our Lord's Candle Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei

The trip down the mountain was not a quick one. One classmate let his curiosity about the plants we pass completely run away with him, so we stopped frequently to check out anything interesting he spotted from the road. His best find was this flower, Chinese Houses, Collinsia heterophylla (Plantain family).

Chinese Houses

At last we got back to our gorgeous new fire ring and our classroom, and it was time to get to work. We removed the flowers from the yucca stalk. The stalks went directly into the fire to cook - and the flowers went into a pot of water.

To prepare yucca flowers, you need to boil them in water, and then pour off the water. Do this three times. This removes the bitterness from them. Below, you can see the flowers in the pot of water, and the water after it boiled, but before I poured it out. When they boil, the flowers color the water a sickly yellow/brown/greenish tint. I assume that's the bitter stuff we don't want to eat.

After boiling them three times, the flowers are pretty well cooked and they really smell like vegetables. I've often read that they taste good with wild onions, and I think they're likely eaten together because both are ripe at the same time. Unfortunately, we did not have wild onions on hand, so we used one from the store.

Our instructor sauteed the yucca flowers with onion, extra virgin olive oil, and a bit of salt.

Then, she cracked a few eggs into the pot, and continued stirring and cooking. The eggs tasted great, but of course chickens eggs were not on the Kumeyaay menu before the Europeans showed up.

Once the mixture was all cooked up, we each heated up a tortilla and made ourselves burritos. Delicious! Even my picky eater friend, Ms. 5th Grader, enjoyed it.

Back around the campfire, while the yucca stalks were cooking, my young friend gained even more insight from my wonderful classmates. They taught her how to build a campfire, and they let her light the match. She got the fire going on the first try. They pointed out an owl hooting to her, and taught her how to distinguish between the sound of a Great Horned Owl and a Barn Owl. She heard both. Then everyone told funny stories about mishaps they'd had while camping. It was really a bummer to make my young friend go home because of those two horrible words - "Bed Time."

On the way home, I asked her if she'd ever had a class that fun before at her school. "Well, not THIS fun," she said, "But recess is pretty good." I'm glad to know that discovering nature and indigenous culture rate better than recess for her!! Take that, Ronald McDonald!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Native American Cooking: Yucca Part 1

Last week was a highly anticipated lesson in my Kumeyaay Traditional Foods class. After much fanfare, we prepared yucca! I have to say, it didn't taste as good as I'd hoped. But some people said they loved it, and it could certainly be a matter of harvesting the plant at the right time. This is the first of two diaries on yucca. The second will cover the flowers, which are also edible.

There are two major species of yucca in San Diego County: Hesperoyucca whipplei and Yucca schidigera. As you can see, they are in different genera, and only one is a true yucca. That one, the latter, is Mojave Yucca. You can recognize it because the flowers grow directly above the leaves, whereas the other species - Our Lord's Candle Yucca - has a long stalk in between the leaves and the flowers. Mojave Yucca flowers more than once in its lifetime. Our Lord's Candle lives for several years, sends up a stalk, flowers, and dies.

Mojave Yucca

Our Lord's Candle is a fairly common plant, and when you harvest a plant for food after it's sent up its stalk, it's on the brink of dying anyway. On the other hand, you are preventing it from going to seed and reproducing by eating it. For that reason, it's probably a good idea not to harvest every single plant you find - let some reproduce.

When the yucca sends up its stalk, it also sends up a lot of sugars. Once it blooms, it's less sweet. It also gets very fibrous. You really have to catch the plants just at the right time if you want to eat them.

Here are some pics of Our Lord's Candle, Hesperoyucca whipplei.

A yucca plant just sending up its stalk - no flowers yet. This is good to harvest.

A yucca plant in bloom. It's too late to harvest this one.

The stalk.

A plant minus its stalk. The leaves are SHARP so you have to be careful not to get cut when you take the stalk. Gloves might be a good idea.

A close up of yucca blossoms

An even closer-up shot of a yucca flower - 6 tepals (a combination of sepals and petals), 6 stamens, and 3 carpels.

We had no class for a few weeks, and during that time, the yuccas on the Sycuan Reservation decided that it was time. One of the students in the class, who also happens to be in charge of the grounds of the reservation, uprooted an entire yucca plant when it began to send up its stalk. Literally. He dug up The Whole Thing. Then he placed it outside the classroom.

A few weeks later, we showed up for class, and there's this enormous yucca plant, completely in bloom. It was not blooming when it was harvested. After it was uprooted, the stalk grew several feet taller and then it bloomed. At that point, the stalk was pretty fibrous and dry. Whoops.

Nonetheless, our instructor put us to work removing the sharp, pointed leaves covering the outside of the stalk. Those peel off easily. Then she had us remove the flowers and set them aside so we could cook them and eat them. Last, we cut the stalk off the base of the plant. But even that was not wasted, because the leaves will be used to make rope and cordage.

Our class, deflowering the yucca plant.

I've read about pit roasting yucca, but our instructor cooks it by placing the stalk directly in the fire. Literally. The whole thing just goes into the fire. Before long, it's hard to tell the yucca apart from the firewood.

Toss the yucca stalk right into the fire.

When the yucca is completely charred all over and a bit ashy and soft, it's done. Safely remove it from the fire, then cut the peel off with a knife, and eat it. It's sweet and somewhat tasty, although that depends in part on the specific plant you harvested and how far along it was in flowering.

Remove it when it looks totally charred.

Cut the charred peel off with a knife, and eat it.

I've also tried cooking yucca by peeling it, dicing it into large chunks, tossing it in sea salt and olive oil, and roasting it. That's more practical if you aren't cooking on a campfire, and one friend I cooked it for using both methods told me she preferred it.