Friday, August 29, 2008

Welcome to the Handmaiden's Kitchen

Welcome! This will be more a storage area than a regular blog. I'm afraid I don't have a lot of time to write daily, and I think the best blogs are daily or nearly so. The main reason for this site is to have all of the articles I write for Michael's Staying Alive blog in one place and all together. Easy to find via searches, etc. What you will find in this blog will be information on foraging, wild plants, what to do with the plants, cooking, recipes, making herbal teas and medicines and that sort of thing. There will probably also be bits and pieces of my opinions on politics, American trash culture, the poisons we eat in the form of processed foods and pharmaceutical drugs, and who knows what else. If I get into this and start doing it daily, I'll let you know. Otherwise, if you're interested, you might want to check in weekly. I'll try to have something new here at least that often.

Please feel free to comment. I look forward to that! I'll leave the comment feature open as it is unless it gets to be a headache. And I may do the advertising thing. Or a donate button. Hell, we're always broke or nearly so, and I will try to make this all worthwhile and interesting information. Let me know what you'd like to learn about, and I'll do my best.

If you want to send an email, it is I do check that most days.

Welcome to all!

Lacto-Fermenting and Other Projects

Here’s what happening in the Handmaiden’s Kitchen

My Amish friends, kind purveyors of terrific raw milk, butter, cream, eggs and produce, also have a yard for their chickens that is mostly a haven for lambs quarters in prodigious quantities. They don’t eat lambs quarter themselves, so they allow me to go and harvest as much as I like while we’re there. I’ve been freezing it for wintertime eating. When I bring home the bags of these nutritious greens, I take all the leaves off the stems (composting the stems, natch). The leaves get blanched in boiling water for three to five minutes, then poured into a collander (save the water you boil it in--it’ll have lots of vitamins and use it as part of a soup stock or drink it). I run cool water over the lambs quarter and when it is cool, put in it ziplock bags, marking the date and toss it in the freezer. Prodigal Gardens explains it well, and has some terrific recipes too. Actually, I’m feeling a bit guilty about this--I should tell Joaz and Lydia why I harvest and eat the lambs quarters--I don’t think they realize how nutritious it is. As it is though, they have so many vegetables in their gardens that I doubt they have time for this “weed.”

The tomatoes have come in and are doing their best to keep me very busy. I haven’t canned them so far, though I will probably end up doing a batch or three. I’ve been making tomato sauce and freezing that. A basic tomato sauce is super easy to make, mostly because I don’t bother peeling and seeding them. Saute up some garlic and onions, add a bunch of cut up ripe tomatos, some chopped up basil, oregano and parsley (dried if you don’t have it fresh), some wine or water and salt/pepper and cook it til it tastes mama mia good. I have one of those handheld blender things--and what a great tool for the kitchen that thing is!--and so I blend it well when it has cooked enough. Yum. Tomato sauce is one of those universally useful foods to have around. If you’re as poor as we are all probably going to be, some fried corn mush topped with tomato sauce and cheese can make an excellent dinner.

Mostly what I’ve been doing, however, involves lacto fermentation, which is something you should know about. You can read about it here, here and here.

Lacto fermentation is a method of preserving food with the added bonus of making that food extra delicious and healthy for you. Here’s what Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions has to say:

"It may seem strange to us that, in earlier times, people knew how to preserve vegetables for long periods without the use of freezers or canning machines. This was done through the process of lacto-fermentation. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria. Starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits are converted into lactic acid by the many species of lactic-acid-producing bacteria. These lactobacilli are ubiquitous, present on the surface of all living things and especially numerous on leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground. Man needs only to learn the techniques for controlling and encouraging their proliferation to put them to his own use, just as he has learned to put certain yeasts to use in converting the sugars in grape juice to alcohol in wine."

Lacto-fermentation is ancient, preserves food, and makes the vegetables, fruits and beverages easier to digest while increasing vitamin content and adding probiotics to your diet. If you have a root cellar or other cool place where you can store foods long term, then you should learn how to ferment your own vegetables. If you have a love for pickles and other sour-tart foods, you’ll love fermented vegetables. As Fallon points out, this is a worldwide custom, every culture knew how to ferment vegetables and fruits to preserve them and to make them even more nutritious.

The basic process is this: Pick the best vegetables or fruits available to you--organic if possible. Clean and cut up the vegetable, usually diced or shredded. Put the vegetable in a bowl and pound it to get some of its juices going. Put it in a clean glass jar, then add some sea salt, whey and water. Leave an inch of head space in the jar, then put the lid on tightly. Leave at room temperature (about 70 degrees) for a few days. This gives the lactobacillus time to ferment. When it tastes sour/tangy to you, then you can store it in the fridge or in the root cellar or another cool place. Sally Fallon explains this in her article and her cookbook. It is very simple and cheap and will preserve your vegetables for months. There are recipes available on the web, just google lacto-fermented recipes and you’ll find them. I’ve talked about vegetables here because I haven’t tried fruit yet. I keep my fermented veggies in the fridge for now, but will put them in the root cellar or cold room when we get that going.

Where you get whey: If you can get raw milk, you can make your own curds and whey. Raw milk left at room temperature will sour, but it doesn’t go bad, at least not in the few days you leave it out. Pasturized milk will definitely go bad left at room temp. I leave a quart or two of raw milk at room temp for two to four days (the time varies because “room temperature” can vary). When the milk has separated, you pour the milk through cheesecloth, allowing the liquid (whey) to collect in a pot, and keeping the curds in the cheesecloth. I use a collander lined with cheesecloth, and when most of the whey has gone into the pot underneath the collander, I gently tie up the cheesecloth onto a wooden spoon placed on top of the collander. I allow the when to drip off the curds for 8 to 10 hours or so (overnight) and in the morning, I have a quart of whey, and some cream cheese in the cheesecloth. I store the whey in a quart jar in the fridge, and use up the cream cheese in recipes. The whey will keep for months. You can add a tablespoon of whey to a cup of soup or water for extra nutritional value, but mostly I use the whey in fermenting. In the 19th century, there were lots of whey houses (think coffee houses or oxygen bars) and it was renowned for its health-giving properties.

“Whey is such a good helper in your kitchen. It has a lot of minerals. One tablespoon of whey in a little water will help digestion. It is a remedy that will keep your muscles young. It will keep your joints movable and ligaments elastic. When age wants to bend your back, take whey . . . With stomach ailments, take one tablespoon whey three times daily, this will feed the stomach glands and they will work well again.” Hanna Kroeger, Ageless Remedies from Mother’s Kitchen (p. 87 in Nourishing Traditions)

If you can’t get whey, you can make piima milk by purchasing some good non homogenized whole milk and adding piima culture. I haven’t looked but I’m sure you can find piima culture to buy through google or check your local health food store. Once you have piima milk, you can then make your whey and cream cheese curds--just leave at room temp for a few days until it separates. Note I am not talking about whey powder here--this is the liquid stuff.

Using lacto-fermentation, I’ve made beet kvass, a very healthy tonic drink. Tart and pleasingly sour, it will strengthen your liver and alkalize and clean your blood. This couldn’t be easier: peel two to three raw beets, dice them up, put in a quart jar and add one tablespoon sea salt and four tablespoons whey. Fill the jar with filtered or clean water and let sit at 70 degrees for a few days, then refrigerate. Leave the beets right in the jar. Once you’ve drank all the liquid, you can refill the jar with water, leave out for two days, then in the fridge again. I’ve been reading that you can also ferment herb teas, which sounds very interesting. More on that later.

Another thing I’ve fermented is gundru. This is a survival food from Nepal, “poor people” food. Gundru can be made from spinach or any other green. And it doesn’t require any salt or whey! All you do is clean the greens, cut them up into small slices, then use a rolling pin to crush the greens more and get their juices working. Cram as much as possible into a clean jar and put on a tight lid. Leave out at room temp. Next day, pound on the greens in the jar again using a wooden spoon. Then you leave it out for 10 days. At the end of 10 days, the greens will smell tart and fermented, like they’ve been cured. The lactobacilli on the surface of the greens will have done their job. If there is any excess water, drain it, and then put the cured leaves out in the sun to dry. It took the batch I did one day to sun dry (it was hot as hell that day). I then put the greens into a small jar and I’ll add them to soups and stews. The gundru taste interesting--it is a good addition to the Greens Jar for adding to wintertime food.

Then there’s purlane stems fermenting and watermelon rind, using the basic salt, whey, water method. As well as some Amish cider that is fermenting in a slightly more alcoholic mode.

There’s other projects going on as well, freezing and drying foods, but this has gotten too long. With life and times about to get harder for most of us, I’m trying to learn ways to harvest free, healthy food, and preserve them for my family. Anything we can do to heighten our nutrition will lessen our need for doctors. And if we’re eating a lot of basic rice and beans, it will help that our vegetables are preserved in ways that make them tasty, interesting and good for us. Give fermentation a try--all our ancestors did.

Aunt Ruth from Red Creek

By the Handmaiden
Believe it or not, a survivalist gentleman poster asked me to write about this, and so I shall, blunt and to the point. If you’re squeamish about women’s monthly blood, then don’t bother reading this.

A caveat, I am past the age where I have to worry about my period (THANK YOU LORD!). Been through menopause with the gracious aid of black cohosh and evening primrose oil and wild yam cream. Done with the hot flashes (almost) and all the assorted crazy emotional crap. So, even though I’m past the age, here’s what I think about this recurring event and how to deal with it.

The Memsahhib on Survival Blog has dealt with this topic with characteristic Rawlsian logic and intelligence, with some links to washable pads. Washable pads are a damn good idea.

In the meantime, it goes without saying, store lots of tampons and pads. Lots of them. Besides their usual use, tampons can be a great aid as tinder for fire-starting, I understand. But store as many as you can for as many women are in your group. Tampons are a great convenience, but if you store and use them, do be aware of the symptoms of toxic shock syndrome. I haven’t heard anything about this rare syndrome in a long time, but it pays to be aware of it nonetheless.

Another good idea would be to look into the reusable menstrual cups, called the Diva cup or The Keeper. This device is slipped into the vagina, up against the cervix, and removed and emptied when it is full of blood. If I still needed to use something, this is what I would use. From what I read, these cups can be used up to 10 years. The only problem may be taking them out to empty and replace in a public bathroom--but this won’t be an issue post-TEOTWAWKI.

But sooner or later, women will have to go back to using rags, washing them, reusing them. This is simple common sense, right? For that matter, nearly everything will be reused over and over again. No more disposable world. And that will be a blessing.

As for PMS and the problems of menopause, there are many herbs that can help with the irritability, cramps, bloating and other symptoms. Here is a good article on many of those herbs. For menopause, I found black cohosh and evening primrose oil to be very beneficial. At the time, I didn’t know the plants grew locally or I would have harvested them as they grow right in our valley. I purchased capsules at the local health food store and they worked fine.

Menustruation is a special time for women--problematic and often a curse. I like how women of the ancients and Native Americans handled it by going off alone (or with other women having their periods) to a separate tent or building and living alone for a few days. Think what a blessing that would be--getting away from the aggravations of daily life, a time to relax and enjoy other women’s company without men or children around. It is an idea whose time may come around again.

For those of you who love a good laugh, please read this! It’s hilarious and on topic!

Beans and Corn Mush

Here are a couple of basic recipes that I make all the time. One is your basic beans and rice--nothing fancy, but good eating. The other is for cornmeal mush, again a real basic. I use a crockpot for the beans, and a microwave for the mush, but both can be made on top of the stove (in home or camp stove) or probably even in a solar cooker.

We genuinely love these dishes--beans and mush is my favorite. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to eat less meat, and these days I like beans more than I like meat. With the mush, or with the rice, they are delicious. The way they are cooked here is nutritious and healthy. You can leave out the meat and onion of course--but they both add a good deal of flavor.

Basic Beans

We tend to use a lot of pintos or black beans. Michael likes both and so do I. But you can cook most any dried beans this way.

1 lb beans
1 large onion
1 piece smoked jowl (or smoked ham hock or whatever fatty meat you have)

Soak the beans overnight. I’ve tried the boil and soak for an hour method, but I think the beans are simply better soaked overnight. In the morning, drain the beans and rinse them a couple of times. Then add water to cover the beans to about two inches above the beans. Chop the onion and add that. Then add the piece of smoked jowl--this will add a lot of flavor to the dish. Set the crockpot on high for about an hour, then turn it to low and let it cook for 4-6 hours or until the beans are soft. Take out the jowl and cut the meaty part off of the fat. I throw the fat bit to the dogs, but only because I can’t think of another use for it. Send ideas if you have any. Put the meaty bits back into the beans. Taste for seasoning, add salt and whatever (hot red pepper, other spices) needed. Serve over rice or mush.

Basic Rice

Ingredients (serves 2 people for a couple of meals)
1 ½ cup rice
3 cups water
Pinch salt

Put rice, water and salt in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stir, then lower the heat to simmer and cover. Check the timing on the package (varies it is it white rice, brown rice, jasmine, basmati, etc.) and do NOT uncover the rice until the time is up. The steam inside the pan is essential. If you uncover your rice to peek at it, you’ll mess it up. When it is done, fluff it up with a fork and add butter.

I really prefer brown rice both for nutrients and for taste, but we’ve stored a lot of white rice, because the brown rice can go rancid. Brown rice can only be stored for 6 months or less--which is fine if you are going to eat it regularly. You can add any spices you wish to the rice or some diced vegetables to vary the flavor.

Corn Meal Mush

We have a bag of corn from the feed store and a grinder, so we start with grinding the corn into meal. As I said, I use the microwave for this, and microwaves vary. Ours is a large one, so judge the recipe accordingly.

1 ¼ cup cornmeal
4 cups water
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 TBS butter
Some shredded cheese

Place the cornmeal, water and salt into a big bowl. Cook uncovered for 6 minutes in the microwave on high. When done, stir the cornmeal well. Then put it back in the microwave for another 6 minutes. Take it out and stir in the butter and the cheese and let it cool just a bit. Then pour it into a greased pan and put it in the fridge. When it cools down, you’ll have a firm cornmeal mush that you can cut into squares and fry, or just serve it with beans. I’ve also served the mush with a venison stew made in the crockpot. It is a basic grain dish you can serve with lots of stuff--tomatoes and zucchini or any other sautéed veggy/meat combo.

With these three basics, you can serve a lot of meals. The corn mush can be fried for breakfast, or you can poach eggs in the beans for that matter. (Put beans in a skillet, with some of their liquid, bring to a boil, break a few eggs into the beans and let the eggs poach.) Use your imagination and get creative. These inexpensive foods can be stored so you’ll always have something on hand, and they make very tasty eating. It doesn’t have to be awful eating your stored foods!

Sumac-Ade, Plantain Oil, and Drying Herbs

Here are a few of the foraging/herb projects I’ve currently got going: A lemonade substitute made from Sumac berries, plantain oil that will become plantain salve when it is time, and lots of herbs drying, waiting to become teas, salves, and tinctures.

Sumac-Ade is quite tasty, a nice tart drink, refreshing on a hot day. And it couldn’t be easier to make. Just gather a bunch of sumac berry clusters (staghorn or smooth sumac--the *red* berries--white berries from a sumac growing in marshy wet areas means poison sumac and you do not want that). You need about 4-10 berry clusters for a gallon or so of sumac-ade. Once you’ve got the berries, fill a big pot with about a gallon of water, rinse off the berry clusters, then put them in the pot. Crush the berries with your hands to ensure that the flavor of the berries will dispense into the water. The berries have lots of vitamin C in them. Let the water sit for a day or so--the longer it sits, the more flavor it will have, of course. When you like the taste, strain the mixture through a couple of layers of cheesecloth or a bandana to remove all the fine hairs and berry stuff from the liquid. And voila, sumac-ade. Refrigerate it or freeze, and serve it sweetened to taste. I like it just as it is, but most will like it sweetened.

An oil or salve made from plantain is just what you need for summer’s ills of bug bites, rashes, skin disorders or any small wound. Plantago major is a wonder-herb, and I’ll bet you will find some not far from your door. The stuff grows everywhere and is easy to identify. And it is very useful to the human family. Gather the leaves for wound-healing and topical uses. If you have an bug bite, chew up some leaves and slap them on the bite. Do the same for any rashes, small wounds, stinging nettle rash or any other problem with your skin. Plantain has been used for so many different problems and symptoms that it has been considered a panacea. You want to get to know this plant. You can eat the young leaves in early spring, especially as a potherb with other foraged greens. The whole plant can be used: roots, leaves and seeds. Read the first link in this paragraph for how what a good ally plantain can be.

To make the plantain oil is easy--gather a slew of the leaves (I take the ubiquitous plastic bag from grocery stores with me when I forage, so a slew is a bag full). Chop up the leaves and stuff them into a quart mason jar. (In this case, it is recommended that you do not wash the leaves first, because the moisture on the leaves could cause mold to form. I read this after I washed the plantain leaves, so we’ll see.) Pour olive oil to cover the leaves, cover tightly and set aside in a dark place for six weeks. Check on the jar occasionally and shake it. After six weeks, strain the oil and add the plant matter to the compost. To make a salve, heat the oil in the top of a double boiler, add in about an ounce or so of grated beeswax (1 ounce beeswax to 1 pint oil), stir with a wooden spoon. Pour it into wide mouth small jars (or a baby food size jar).

Currently we have lots of wild plants and herbs drying in various paper bags: maidenhair fern, mullein leaves, wood nettles, stinging nettles, mugwort, horsetail, lemon balm, plantain, and yarrow. Also there are dandelion root and yellow dock root, cut up and dried. All of these will be used in the winter for teas and the roots for tinctures. This winter we discovered nettle tea and we really like it, so rather than buy it from the bulk herb section of the health food store, we’ve got our own ready to go. The other teas are for more medicinal purposes: maidenhair fern and mullein for coughs and colds; the mugwort I will use in a small pillow to aid sleep and dreams, or a decoction in the bath to relax muscles; the horsetail contains a lot of silica and is useful as a diuretic and to inhibit wound bleeding. Lemon balm is a nice flavorful tea, helps to reduce stress, and is considered a “calming” tea. Useful for TEOTWAWKI, yes? Plantain is good for just about anything, and yarrow is a premier herb for wound-healing. The dandelion and yellow dock roots will be made into a tincture for spring-cleaning--of the body that is. These aid the liver, strengthening and detoxifying.

Another project I will start soon is to collect and dry many forage edible and medicinal plants, dry them and add them to a “Greens Jar.” I read this somewhere and it sounded like a good idea, since all of these plants have vital vitamins and minerals, including trace elements. I will probably use a half-gallon canning jar. The idea it to collect many different herbs and edibles, dry them and put them all mixed up in the jar. Then, when you’re making soup or stews, just add a handful of the greens. Even if dried, they’ll lend their vitality to the soup or stew, and you’ll be getting some good nutrition, especially if you’re living on your stored rice and beans. I will do this with all the “safe” herbs and plants. If an herb or plant comes with cautions-- “don’t use if pregnant or have a heart condition” or anything like that, you might not want to add it to the greens jar. But that leaves a host of plants that you can and should add to the jar. Consider it a low-cost and easy way to add good nutritional value as well as tastiness to your food.

Summertime Harvesting

June is the summer garden, weeding, watering, feeding the plants that are still a bit too small to be producing. Late July and August are the real harvest months. However, if you garden, you can find nutritious edible weeds growing among your beans and corn and whatever luscious vegetables you have growing.

Every day I work in the garden, which is most days, I bring a couple of plastic bags with me for harvesting the edible weeds. In my last post, I mentioned lambs quarter and purslane, so I’ll write more in depth about these two useful, tasty plants, because chances are, you’ll find them in your garden. If you don’t have a garden, see if your family or friends who do will let you help them weed their garden.. Or ask a farmer--Joaz, the Amish farmer we buy our eggs, butter and produce from lets me out into his oat field whenever I ask. I don’t think he can believe that I actually will eat this hated weed; he probably thinks I’m nuts. That’s OK, I think it is perfectly fine when people think I’m nuts. Tells me I’m heading in the right direction…

Here is a terrific picture of young lambs quarter plants. You can see the plants very clearly in that photo. (Check out the rest of Bobcats Wilder Kitchen with its wild plants and recipes while you’re there.) When it gets older, this is what it looks like. Lambs quarter, also known as goosefoot or pigweed, has a long growing season--you can eat it from when it first appears to about November. If you’re weeding, pull out the whole plant and cut off the roots (so you won’t get tons of dirt in the sink when you’re cleaning it). Voila, you’ve weeded, helping your garden plants along by eliminating the competition, and you’re on your way to a nice salad for dinner.

Lambs quarter’s nutritive value is “not only equal by even greater than that of spinach: besides its large content of iron, calcium, and albumen, lambs quarters is also rich in vitamins A and C.”(From Just Weeds.) It is an herb you can use any way you use spinach--raw, in salads, steamed lightly, served with salt, pepper and butter or a touch of vinegar, or in soups, stews, pasta dishes. We like it right now in salad; as the summer goes on, I will also be blanching and freezing it for winter consumption.

The seeds are also nutritious and edible. Gather them late in the fall by placing a paper bag under the seeds and stripping them off into the bag. The seeds can be eaten as a breakfast mush, like cornmeal mush, or ground and used with flour for pancakes or whatever. I haven’t harvested the seeds yet myself, but that’s what the info has to say.

The other plant to look for in your garden is purslane. We found this last summer, growing all over the garden. I had read about it and recognized it, and so picked a bunch to try. We loved it--it’s very tasty, with an acidy, lemony flavor. We mentioned it to our neighbors who also had garden plots near ours, and they ate it too. Some of the men claimed it made their joints stop cracking and were less sore when they moved. After we told everyone about how wonderful purslane is, it became almost rare in the gardens since everyone was harvesting it. This year I hope they forget--the more for us!

Last year, an article appeared on the web called “The 10 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating.” Purslane was number 6 in that article. It has a large amount of Omega 3 fats, vitamins C and A, iron, phosphorus, and calcium. Purslane was cultivated as a vegetable in the past, but it was forgotten. Now is the time to remember this tasty weed and to enjoy its benefits. When harvesting purslane, beware of spurge, which tends to grow near purslane, and looks a bit similar to it. Spurge’s stem is wiry, not thick like purslane, and gives off a milky sap. These two don’t look that much alike, but be careful when you’re harvesting purslane. Spurge is poisonous.

Purslane can be eaten raw, steamed, added to soups and stews, and the stems can be pickled. The seeds are also edible, but again, I haven’t had the pleasure of gathering and serving them. This year, maybe, although it sounds very labor-intensive to gather these tiny seeds.

Now that some folks are trying to live a more sustainable life, purslane is considered a good choice for edible landscaping. I love this idea myself. If I landscaped, I’d try to have every plant edible or medicinal, both handsome and useful. Rather than spend your time trying to get rid of these “weeds,” lambs quarter and purslane, rejoice when you see them in your garden, because it means extra, free food that is more nutritious than the other garden plants you’re growing.

Beginning Foraging: How to Get Started with Free Wild Foods

When I was a kid, we used to laugh at Euell Gibbons, the eminent forager, who seemed always to be saying, “This here is ___________________, it’s edible, you know.” The joke then was Gibbons saying, “This here’s a Volkswagen, it’s edible, you know.” And we laughed.

Well, I don’t laugh now, because I’ve become a weed-eater too. We live in southern Indiana, in a rich valley chock full of plants for good eating and good medicine. Right outside my door grow plantains, red clover, dandelions, persimmon trees, elderberries, lamb quarters, and within a short walk are a host of other edibles. Even in a city there are plenty of wild plants to harvest for eating and healthy teas.

OK, you know this. You’ve read it before. You already know dandelions, and probably lamb’s quarters and chickweed, as these commonly “infest” lawns and you‘ve probably tried your damnedest to kill them. So how do you get started on the rest of them? It can be tricky, and there are poisonous plants that look like the plant you want to harvest, so yes, you do have to be careful. But it isn’t so hard that you can’t learn some of the more common ones that grow around you. And once you see them, and have them imbedded in your mind--their appearance, smell, habitat, etc.--then you’ll recognize them from now on.

So how to start? I’ll recommend some books and websites that have been helpful to me. And let me state now that I’m a rank beginner. I make mistakes. Just a few nights ago I wanted to serve some milkweed shoots for dinner. I had gathered them, tried to carefully ID them to make sure they weren’t dogbane, but after cooking them as recommended by Sam Thayer (author of A Forager’s Harvest), they were too bitter and nasty to eat. I had not ID’d them carefully enough apparently. They must have been dogbane and not common milkweed as I thought. Mistakes happen--caution is necessary. The milkweed went to the compost heap, so it wasn’t all a bad deal.

The first thing I did to get started was to ask a local herb woman/biology teacher to take me on a walk to find some edible and medicinal plants. Mary Jo was agreeable and so off we went one morning last August. We found stinging nettles, jewelweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, horsetail, burdock, goldenseal, elderberry, wild ginger, lamb’s quarters, chicory, staghorn sumac and evening primrose. Another friend who used to wildcraft (forage) took me on another walk and we found wild yam, spicebush, pawpaw, greenbriar, wild grapes, witchhazel, mallow and comfrey. I didn’t learn to firmly ID all these plants to my satisfaction, so I’ll need my trusty books to keep working on it, but it got me started. And made me realize what a cornucopia this valley is!

If you have friends or aquaintances who go out mushrooming or foraging, enlist their help. See if your local colleges or universities are offering any variety of a “people’s university” where local folks teach classes on their hobbies--there might be some resources there.

Some good books to start you off, all of which have their pros and cons:

Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke (a Peterson Field Guide)--color photos and basic identifying information, as well as some lore and what part of the plants to use.

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill. Terrific line drawings of the plants, tons of identifying information and a neat guide to how to cook and eat the plants.

The Forager’s Harvest: Edible Wild Plantsby Samuel Thayer--an excellent guide to some of Thayer’s favorites edibles, lots of photos and in-depth information. Thayer only discusses plants that he himself has foraged and eaten, and discusses them in detail. Photos of plants in various stages of their lifecycles.

Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses, by Pamela Jones--a book of common weeds with entertaining stories about them all. Not great for identifying info, but full of fun and interesting information about the weeds, what they were used historically for, how to prepare, etc.

I don’t list these in order of importance--all of them have proven useful and informative. I have a lot more books on this, but these are the ones I keep and read the most. I buy them used, at garage sales, Goodwill, wherever I can find them cheap.

As I write more on foraging, I’ll get into other books and resources as well. Some of my favorite websites on foraging are:

“Wildman” Steve Brill’s foraging site--has a lot of the same info as his book, with color pictures.

Steve Brill‘s foraging pictures, with many pictures, sometimes at different times of the year--a terrific help for beginners!

Prodigal Gardens, a great website with lots of pictures, ID info, and recipes. Click on the Herbwalk for month-to-month foraging and cooking recipes.

Foraging the Edible Wild, a website dedicated to the great Euell Gibbons. Many interesting articles.

I usually pick a plant I’m interested in, say stinging nettles. I start reading about it in the books, look at the pictures, check the habitat of the plant, see if it is in my region of the country, and all of that. Then I look in the most likely places, ask valley folks if they’ve seen any, and try to find some. By this time I have a pretty good idea of what it looks like, and where it lives. Stinging nettles like creeks and riverbanks, disturbed habitats, horse barns (they like rich soil). Those are the places I looked first. When I couldn’t find any on my own, I asked local folks. They gave me suggestions, and then a friend showed me where a huge batch of them were growing. These weren’t stinging nettles (they stung alright, but the leaves were alternate rather than opposite), but they are nettles of some kind--probably slender or wood nettles. I’ve been gathering them ever since.

There are basic rules to foraging, all of which make sense. Don’t take all of them--leave enough so they can continue propagating and blessing you with future harvests. Don’t take too much from any one location. You’ll find some more guidelines here.

Pick a few easy-to-identify plants, see if they have any poisonous lookalikes--and if they do, then be extra careful. Better yet, leave a plant with poisonous lookalikes alone until you think you know what you’re doing when it comes to plant identification. I don’t take chances, but I do make mistakes as I said earlier. If it tastes bitter or nasty--then don’t eat it. Your common sense should tell you that.

Easy to ID, common, and usually prolific plants include lamb’s quarters, nettles, burdock, purslane, wintercress, red clover, and chickweed. If you’re a beginner, as I am, then look for these plants first. None of them have poisonous lookalikes, all are delicious and very nutritious.

There are many reasons to start foraging. I liked the idea of interesting free foods. I believe with modern monoculture agriculture that the soil and the plants grown on that soil lack many essential trace minerals. Plants growing wild have never been sprayed with chemicals nor has the soil they grow in been depleted by modern farming, so wild plants have great nutritional value. These are not just “survival” foods--these are life-giving, delicious foods. There is a good deal of simple joy in foraging. Try it. You won’t be sorry.

Trading with the Amish

About a year ago, the Gruff Lord (Michael, the blog-owner to you) suggested that we get some of our produce from the Amish--good, organic, natural produce. So an older gentleman in our community, Fred, and I began to go to an Amish farm so we could purchase fresh, raw milk, free-range chicken eggs, farm-raised bacon and any other goodies that these kindly folks were willing to part with for agreed-upon prices.

It’s been a wonderful thing. The milk, butter, eggs, meat are tasty, fresh, and healthy. Not only that, but Lydia and Joaz sell them to us for much less than we would have to pay in any local organic grocery or health food store. We know, we’ve priced it.

Joaz and Lydia have kept their farm free of chemicals--insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers--for the required three years. This year, they can begin to sell their produce as officially organic. In a nearby town, a new food coop has opened, the Lost River Community Coop, that sells predominantly organic produce. So they have a great market for their home-grown veggies, besides us and all the other “English” who drive out to buy the produce.

Slowly but surely, people are becoming aware that standard American food products are rotten and poisonous--full of chemicals and nearly totally lacking nutrition. Turns out “junk food” is more junk than it is food. And that includes ALL processed foods.

Fresh milk that could be full of enzymes is pasteurized, thus killing all of the health-giving enzymes. So why bother drinking it? Same with butter--but even worse than butter is the pack of chemicals that food companies came up with to surplant natural butter--all the “I can’t believe it is butter” crap. This kind of “food” not only fills you up with chemicals which will eventually kill you, it gives you nearly nothing nutritionally. A modern American can be fatter than one of Joaz’ pigs, and yet have malnutrition. Only in America!

Both Fred and I have studied Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook, but also an entire course on traditional nutrition in itself. A person can spend hours reading Nourishing Traditions and learn everything he needs to know about nutrition. Those of us in the Sally Fallon school want a traditional 19th century diet of natural, wholesome, healthy foods.

Which is why Fred and I go and buy our goodies from the Amish.

If you are fortunate enough to live near Amish farms, you might want to take a drive out to their neck of the farming lands and see what kind of trade, barter or purchase you can arrange for these good natural foods. We have found the Amish to be wonderful people, kind, good-humored, hard-working. The children are polite, helpful and fun to be around. As we have gotten to know Joaz and Lydia and their kids a bit better, we find we are doing small things for them--research on the web, print-outs of this and that, information about the evil NAIS bill--and they do small things for us--toss in a pound of bacon for free.

A friendship gets established. Connection and relationships. These are good things to have when the SHTF. It isn’t all guns. It’s also butter. If you don’t already have your own cows and goats and small farm, get your good butter from the Amish.

More on this topic as I find the time.

Weeds: Plants Treasured by Our Ancestors

By the Handmaiden

Many of the wild edible and medicinal plants gathered by today’s foragers were brought to the Americas by the Pilgrims and other early immigrants. These were plants known to be valuable as food and medicine, and naturally enough early colonists wanted these plants around them in the new world.

In other words, plants that are today disdained as weeds, were highly-desirable plants treasured by our forefathers, who knew of their beneficial uses. Think of the “weeds” that herbicides are created to kill--dandelions, lambs quarters, chickweed, plantain--these plants traveled here with people who brought them as seeds or rootlings. They were planted in herb gardens, but being hardy and prolific, they began to multiply and spread quickly. Today, they are all over the country, having traveled with, and in spite of, people’s efforts.

I have a book called Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses by Pamela Jones. I bought it used through Amazon for about $10. And it is worth every penny for all the entertaining stories about weeds, which are generally the plants we harvest when foraging. Jones gives historical information, herbal recipes, food recipes, discusses what various herbalists and medical men have written about the plants and their properties; she even mentions magical uses, keeping away bad spirits and the like. This is the kind of book you sit down to read rather than a field guide; it informs you as well as entertains.

Jones writes that most if not all of the widely-foraged weeds were brought by colonists to America, that is, if the plant wasn’t already here in various related species. (Poison ivy was already here, it’s a native.)

Here is a list of a few excellent culinary and medicinal weeds with some background information about them (taken from Just Weeds):

Yarrow--an herb used for wound-healing, is an ancient Eurasian plant. It has been carbon-dated back 60,000 years and was probably known to Egyptian, Indian and Chinese healers. Brought over by the colonists.

Burdock--was known in ancient and medieval times in Europe and was brought over by early immigrants. It has both medicinal and culinary uses--excellent as a blood purifier in the spring (the root), crushed leaves can be applied to mosquito bites; and the stalk can be eaten in the spring or the root eaten in spring and fall.

Black mustard, which grows all over the place--you see its yellow flowers in the spring in fields, was mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon. Everyone knows of the bright yellow mustard condiment, or honey pepper mustard or spicy dijon. Used for food (the Roman army took the plant with them and ate it as a cooked vegetable) and for medicine (heard of mustard plasters?) Grows worldwide.

Shepherd’s Purse was unknown in the Americas before the Pilgrims. These days, it is a weed of ancient lineage, used for food and medicine. High in Vitamin K, it helps to clot the blood.

Lambs quarters: Originated in the Mediterranean region (as do quite of few of these plants). Also known as pigweed, this family of plants has 60 species. Lambs quarters is an incredibly hardy plant--it can grow in poor soil, and seeds found in an archeology site where they were buried 1700 years ago actually germinated! It was grown as fodder for livestock and poultry, and raised for human food by Indian farmers.

Plantain, which became known as white man’s foot to Native Americans, is a plant so common you probably have never noticed it. It also traveled with the Roman army as it tramped around the world. It is very useful for insect bites, rashes, light burns, sores and wounds and antidote to poison. Crush the leaves and apply them as a poultice to the area affected. The seeds, known as psyllium, are widely used as a laxative. The entire plant is rich in potassium salts, and is a very useful herb to know.

Chicory--you know, that spindly plant with the lovely blue flowers you see at the side of the road--has been cultivated for 5,000 years. Thomas Jefferson sent to Italy for chicory seeds, which he harvested for his table and for cattle fodder. The roots can provide a coffee substitute (or be added to coffee when brewed as the French do). You will also find it in grocery stores as endive, a bitter lettucy green. There’s also a forced form, pale and crisp, that you pay top dollar for. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years.

Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot--brought over by colonists. Member of the parsley family, which includes parsnips, celery, parsley, dill and caraway. It also contains poisonous plants such as water hemlock, the deadliest plant in North America. The root of Queen Anne’s lace is carrot-like, and edible. The herb portion (the leaves) of the plant can be decocted and used to wash wounds and boils.

Why Wild Foods?

Why Wild Foods?
By Patricia Neill Boone © 2008

(OK, enough with the copyright stuff or the fancy name. I'll just go by Handmaiden here.)

“We spend millions on herbicides to kill the dandelions in our lawns, while we pay millions more for diet supplements to give ourselves the vitamins and minerals that dandelion could easily furnish.” Euell Gibbons in his essay on Just How Good Are Wild Foods?

In a world that is crumbling before us, and where we might have to live on foods we’ve grown and stored, learning to gather wild foods is an excellent skill to have. It is knowledge that once learned, cannot be taken from you. Even if you lost everything--your job, your family, your prepped gear and foods, you would still be able to eat if you know how to fish and how to forage.

I was reading somewhere how a guy was a POW in Germany in the Second World War. He knew what wild foods to eat and recognized some growing where his prison camp was located in Germany. While many around him died from malnutrition, starvation and disease, his knowledge of the wild nutritious weeds kept him alive.

Wild foods are full of health-giving nutrients, vitamins and minerals. As these elements become more and more rare in our over-processed foods, Americans have become malnourished even as they’ve become obese. We need all the trace minerals, the vitamins, the essential fatty acids, the minerals we can get, and wild foods can give them to you. Here is a wonderful chart of many of the more common wild edibles and their nutritive value.

Purslane and lambs’ quarters, which I found yesterday growing (free!) in my garden, are both high in essential fat, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin C. We had them in a salad last night. These are weeds, folks, hardy plants that you have to work hard to get rid of. I’ll “get rid” of mine by letting them grow into a good size so that we can more fully enjoy them. With purslane, it is good to just break off the stem and leave the root. The stem will grow back.

These foods, these weeds, essentially, grow all around you wherever you are. Once you learn the plant, you will always recognize it, even driving past a patch of something in a car, you’ll still be able to identify the plant. Learning this skill can save your life, it can provide you with food in hard times, it can be your ticket into a survival group, and best of all, no one can ever take the knowledge from you. Once learned, its yours.

When I go out to forage, I carry a backpack with some essential tools. I suggest you get the tools, keep them in a bag of some sort in your car, and you’ll always be ready to forage wherever you are.

When I first started foraging, I just took a folding knife and some plastic bags for whatever I managed to harvest. As I made more foraging trips, I realized that some other tools would also come in handy. Here’s what I carry these days.

I keep a small backpack in the trunk of my car that holds all my foraging stuff. It’s got bottled water, some Avon Skin-so-Soft bath oil (the best bug repellent in the world), lots of plastic bags, a foraging book with color photos and good ID information and my tools.

The tools are standard gardening tools--a hand trowel, a hand cultivator, a pruning tool, and a root digger. I also have a nifty pruning/gardening multi-tool with two knife blades, one with some saw teeth, a saw and a short root digger. Mine is similar to the one shown in the link, but with less tools. There’s a pair of gloves in the pack as well--you need ‘em for those nettles. I also carry a shovel in the trunk of the car for digging bigger roots.

The book I carry in my pack is Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman. This guide has good photos and good information on each plant, and it isn’t heavy or bulky.

And that’s it--that’s all you’ll need. You don’t have to have the field guide I carry--though I really like this book. Just make sure you have a good guide with color photos and a good description of the plant and its habitat. If you have any doubts about a plant, take a sample--a branch, a shoot, something with the leaves and other key identification aspects, and continue to research it on the web. You’ll soon learn to ID the plants you’re interested in. Good luck and happy hunting!