Monday, April 25, 2011

Upcoming Local Living Events

Gotta Love Double Daffodils

Well, we've kicked Spring into high gear here in Central Maryland... flowers and allergies are in full bloom. I took a wander down to my next door neighbor's property a few days ago to find a massive display of tulips. They had hand planted 1000 tulips last Fall. Wow, now that's a lot of work in heavy clay forest soil. I planted a hundred daffodil bulbs and some much smaller number of tulips about twelve years ago now on the property. It was crazy tough getting a hole deep enough. I went from using the little bulb planter through a variety of shovels trying to excavate and eight inch hole. I recall the frustration enough that I haven't tried to plant spring bulbs again, in spite of the fact that most of the daffodils have survived and provide a gorgeous array of color in March.

Now, like many folks, I'm trying to get thing done in the garden before it gets too hot. I did not empty my rain barrels this past Winter, having thought about it and consulted a number of others on their opinions. Mistake. My two 60-gallon barrels split and are now big chunks of plastic. :( Since we are on a well, collecting the rain before last Summer's drought was critical. I was able to water the plants enough to keep them going, resorting to using our house water only at the end of the Summer. So, one major project is the rain barrels. Another is my veggie garden bed. That's a subject into itself, which I'll post pictures of later.

Along with all the yard work that comes with Spring, there are lots of fairs and festivals, many celebrating local and more conscious living. I've listed the three here that we will be attending in the next month. If you know of others in the region along this theme, please add them in the comments.

Dicentra Cucullaria - Dutchman's Cap - love it !

Next weekend, April 30th and May 1st, is the South Mountain Creamery Spring Festival. This Maryland creamery delivers dairy products across the region, along with an array of other groceries, many from local producers. Their family festival is designed to learn about the creamery, tour the farm, and for kids to get to do activities like making butter and feeding calves. The festival runs 10-5 on Saturday and 11-5 on Sunday. The farm is located at 8305 Bolivar Road in Middletown, MD.

Then, the following weekend, May 7-8, is the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival at Howard County Fair Grounds. This will be our first year attending, but the number of people who have told me what a great time this is for the whole family is striking. It's all about regional sheep herders, complete with livestock demonstrations and workshops. And it's also about the wool, completely with spinning and yarn. There are crafts for the kids and lots of vendors. I've been warned that Saturday during the peak of the day can be insane because the road isn't designed for that heavy level of traffic. We're going Sunday. Check it out, meet your farmers. There are tons of activities and you can find a schedule online.

Lastly, but far from least, is the Go Local Fair coming May 21st at the Carroll County Ag Center in Westminster. This is a free day long festival about local and sustainable living put on by a wonderful set of people committed to educating the public and providing the resources necessary for them to make great decisions about their food, their home,  and the environment. There are workshops and lectures through the day, as well as vendors. This year, Ed Bruske, the Slow Cook, will be doing a kids culinary workshop. Ed is a school food activist, former Washington Post journalist, and kid's culinary instructor from D.C.  He writes a fabulous blog both about the school food movement and his own adventures in local living at Last year I took two great sessions, one on native Maryland plants and another on sustainable agriculture. The Master Gardener program, I believe, will be selling rain barrels and composters. Please do check it out, rain or shine. A tremendous amount of work goes into the planning of this event, it's free, and it's designed to connect people to information they need.

Kwanzai Cherry in full bloom

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Foraging: It's Time For Wild Chives

Wild chives emerge in the woods
Spring is beginning to burst forth here in the mid-Atlantic, as the daffodils bloom and the signature cherry trees follow in succession. In the woods where I live, the brown carpet of fallen leaves is being interrupted by tufts of green as the dormant perennials reemerge. One of the very first signs of life around here are the wild chives that sprout up like little Mohawk hairdos on the brown forest floor. While it's time to plant the garden and we anxiously await the asparagus and other Spring crops, I take advantage of what nature has to offer on its own. I am by no means an expert forager, but each year I strive to be able to identify a few more plants, edible or not, to increase my understanding of what I can take from the cycle around me.

Most people pick ripe berries during the Summer when they are out hiking or at the local park, and moving beyond the obvious raspberries and blackberries isn't too difficult.   You do need to take care and not just eat random things, of course, but there is much to eat and enjoy without planting and maintaining a garden. This is the first in a series of a few posts I plan to make on foraging this year. The thing about foraging is you can't really wait until it's convenient for you, what is blooming is what is there, so I plan to show a few of the things we gather over the course of the Spring and Summer. I've included some references and comments about them below, for those who wish to dive in further.

Foraging is a blast. It connects you more closely with the Earth and the natural cycle of life in the plant world. It gives you traditional skills that are all but lost in the modern Western society. It's cheap. It's rather unusual. And it's something that you can learn over a course of many years. While you might live in an urban area or a suburban area with nice, neat green lawns, you can forage in State and National parks. In the Baltimore region, there is a wide range of parks that offer the opportunity for foraging, including the Patapsco State park system.

Wild chives close up - cut them, they smell like onions

Right now, plants are just emerging from the ground. As I mentioned, wild chives and onions are some of the first to make their presence known. They are easy to identify - they look like bunches of chives and, when broken at the stem, they smell like onions. There are poisonous plants that look similar to onions, if you dig them up they might have an onion like bulb, but all edible plants in the onion family smell like onion when broken. So, this is a really safe forage. Wild garlic is also coming up, but I find it harder to identify until the June time frame when the tell-tale garlic scapes are so obvious, and again, when you break the scape, it smells like garlic. Wild garlic scapes, like those from the garden, add a nice gentle garlic taste to dishes, I think -- I have read that others find them too strong.  You use wild chives just like chives. I go outside with scissors and clip a bunch, then chop and use them in soups or dips. They are pretty mild smelling and tasting in my opinion, but they work great for that purpose.

Garlic mustard just emerging - this is an invasive culinary herb

Also emerging right now is garlic mustard. We usually don't harvest these until they flower, when again they are super obvious to delineate from other plants. I strongly encourage you to harvest garlic mustard. It is an invasive culinary herb introduced from Italy in the mid-twentieth century. Garlic mustard has a garlic fragrance when you crush the leaves -- which you can do by rubbing them together roughly when you are identifying them -- and they make a good pesto. Just pick a ton of them by yanking the whole plant out of the ground, roots and all, stripping the leaves, and then pureeing it in a food processor with olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts, and garlic. Pesto should also have parmesan, but if you want to make a bunch, you can freeze it in ice cube trays and then add the cheese at cooking time. Garlic mustard produces tons of seedlings each year and should be yanked, whether you eat it or not. Like wild chives, it has a distinct (good) odor, making it easy to identify.  More on that as the season turns.

Wild asparagus is also coming up soon. I have never harvested it before; it doesn't seem to grown on our property or around us, but it is supposed to be delicious. It is used like cultivated asparagus.

Did you know that wild daylilies are edible?

The main rules of foraging are:
  • You need to be able to identify the plants. Get good resources and try to only learn a few things at a time. Plant identification is a non-trivial endeavor! 
  • While most poisonous plants will only make you sick, there are some plants that even a very small amount of can make you extremely ill and a few can result in death. Do not eat things you can not identify.
  • If you taste something and it is bitter and unpalatable, spit it out! and wash out your mouth. I say this because you might misidentify something or you might be stubborn and decide to try something anyhow!
  • As expert Samuel Thayer says, if you need a book to identify it, don't eat it. You obviously can't identify it !
  • I try to learn the really poisonous plants of my region at the same time I learn a few edible plants. 
  • Plants can be edible only in part, for example potato tubers are edible, but potato leaves are poisonous. Plants can be edible only at certain times of the season, like after they have seeded or before they have seeded.  Plants can be edible only if cooked or handled in a certain way. All of this variation means: learn your plants and use authoritative plant guides. 
  • Do not identify plants solely from photos. Photos can be very misleading.
There are a number of foraging or edible wild plant guide out there. What I learned after several years was that most of them have serious errors in them. They may misidentify plants in pictures or even say that poisonous plants are edible.  Use multiple sources to identify plants as you go about learning the ones in your region. Take advantage of the Internet sources, but again, try to use multiple sources. Use a wildflower or plant guide rather than a foraging guide, or in addition to one.

The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer seems to be the most authoritative guide out there. He is highly opinionated about other guides and has a lot of caution in his book. Every plant in his book is one he has eaten many many times, and the detail in his book is amazing. Having said that, for those reasons, the number of plants is limited and it is a regional book. His book is  most applicable in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and Northeast region. I still find it the best resource.

Edible Wild Plants, a North American Field Guide. There are errors in this book. Having said that, I still use it, along with secondary resources. It has a huge array of plants and pictures. The detail is nowhere near what Thayer's book contains.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide is a wildflower identification guide and the authoritative one. Highly recommended by Thayer and by native plant specialists I have spoken to about foraging. It will definitely make it clear to you that plant identification is hard.. but fun.

The Cooperative Extensions are also another resource. In Carroll County, there is a native plant expert associated with the Extension, and I imagine that is the case all over the country. Those folks, whether they forage or not, are great resources and often offer classes in native plant identification.

It's a beautiful sunny day here in Maryland.... go out and forage !  If you forage in your area, I'd love to hear about it!!

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop, and Simple Lives Thursday. Check out those sites for a wide range of blogs with posts associated to Real Food, sustainable life styles, and simpler living.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Winter CSA Wrap-Up

The last of our greens!
Today is the last pick up of our Winter CSA that began shortly before Thanksgiving. What a blast it has been! As I discussed in the previous article on How to Choose a CSA, there really are a lot of considerations to make. Our Winter CSA subscription was an experiment and an adventure -- we wanted to see just what you would get across five Winter months. Elain and Everblossom Farm did not disappoint.

In mid-January, with all the cold and snow in Pennsylvania this year, there was a lull in plant growth. Elaine made a command decision to cancel one of the January pick ups and replace it with another at the end of the season. Then, as February opened into March, she had a bloom in growth and added an extra pick up to ensure the produce wasn't wasted. Where the initial pickups were full of Winter squash, this last month has had a lot of greens, both lettuce and cooking greens.

In the post on choosing a CSA, I talked about being exposed to new vegetables and having to learn more about how to cook them. That certainly happened here for me.
  • I had never had celeriac, a big root bulb that I learned to cook and smash like potatoes. Mixed with broth and butter, it had a mild celery flavour and mashed potato texture.
  • I had limited greens experience. I've used Chard quite a bit, but never turnip, beet, and radish greens, and only rarely kale. I don't think I'd cooked collard greens. I used Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything to tackle a bunch of these and learn variety. I found his preparation of greens with yogurt just phenomenal over rice. Elaine herself had given us a recipe for beet greens with bacon, which was a hit in our home and a few months later in my mom's. With the greens, I learned the frequently a teaspoon of sugar would make all the difference, and to toss in a lot of other flavors. Sadly, a giant bundle of greens wilts down to maybe a single meal of veggies. 
  • Turnips. I had eaten turnips at various points in my life. I had not been keen on them. Usually someone was disguising them as potatoes, and they just aren't potatoes. I've been avoiding cooking mine, frankly, by putting them in the back of the produce drawer. But, last night I decided Bittman had to save me. I tried his Braised and Glazed root veggie recipe, which basically cooks the turnips in a small amount of broth and butter, then boils off the liquid to leave them coated in a glossy intense sauce. My son and I agreed they were excellent. I actually had seconds. My husband thought the turnip flavor was still too strong and rejected them. 
  • Blue Hubbard squash. This was the giant blue-green pumpkin size squash I used for pie and soup in the late Fall. I love love love this squash. This was my first time with this kind of Winter squash and I will definitely try to find it again this Fall. 
  • Pea shoots. This is exactly what it sounds like, the green shoot vines from planted peas. I am thinking you must overseed the peas and then thin them to harvest the shoots. Anyhow, you get these little vines. Elaine presented us with a recipe to use them in an Asian subo noodle with shitaki mushrooms dish. Most excellent. So much so, I cooked it twice. I'm not one on cooking things twice, generally. I also through them in other soups and stews and they worked great. 

Our final delivery will be greens greens greens. My greenhouse I discussed in this earlier post as a sad affair has exploded. Mostly it is weeds that have exploded, but the few lettuce and spinach plants, along with a handful of onions, have shot up in the weeks I was away as well. Shot up literally, it looks like several of the lettuce are ready to bolt. :(

As we leave the CSA season, I'm looking to my local farm to get asparagus to tide me over in fresh veggies until the farmer's market opens in late May.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Blogger's New Dynamic Views

I came online this afternoon to start a post on foraging - still to come - and discovered that Blogger has added a range of dynamic views to their mix of blogging features. There are five different views, all of which are independent of the original blog design.  I took a look and found that the mosaic view, as well as a few others, seemed like a great way to get an overview of the blog all at once via pictures and short text. So I've added a hyperlink to that view on the right. There doesn't seem to be a smoother way to integrate these views into the site.

The dynamic views are available for all Blogger blogs simply by adding "/view" onto the end of the site's url,... unless the author has disabled the dynamic views. I haven't.

If you want to check them out, just click the link

and you'll see a pull-down menu top right to flip between views...or just to go straight to the mosaic view, click here.

The mosaic view is great when you have images attached to your entries... I don't have photos for all my entries, so you can see the collage is interrupted by text entries... but I think that makes it even more compelling.

Have fun. Now I'll get to that entry on foraging wild chives.