Tuesday, April 17, 2012

More Adventures in Backyard Foraging

So my next great adventure involves the lowly dandelion.  Well, lowly is a relative term.  I have plenty of neighbors who probably see my lawn as nothing more than an infestation waiting to happen.  Come mid-morning, our yard erupts into a field of yellow and soon, if we don't mow it first, a field of pestilent seed heads.   But every morning I go out there and collect whole dandelion plants and chickweed for my chicks who gobble it up like there's nothing better.  They might be on to something.

I recently became a little more fond of the flower myself.  No, I haven't put it in my salads yet, but I've missed that boat this year anyhow.  It's no secret that dandelions are tasty but I'm speaking today of dandelion wine.  I've always wanted to try it, let alone make it.  Now that I've got a few batches of grape wine under my belt and a peach wine too, it's time to expand my repertoire.   Armed with a paper bag on an absurdly windy day, I picked enough dandelions to fill nine cups of nothing but the "petals".  But more on that in a bit.  The flower heads are actually very beautiful if you give them a second look.  They are nothing short of miniature zinnias.  I once heard a guy say that they are only weeds to those who like vast expanses of green nothingness.  But really, to those who appreciate them, they are very beautiful flowers that grow REALLY well.  And that's the truth.  I've even heard it said that they are indeed native to the U.S. due to accounts of the Native Americans using them in their own concoctions before Columbus even landed.  Here I've grown up being told they were a non-native weed.  Who knows?

So I took this large crop of dandelions into the house and began separating the green from the yellow.  I've heard it said that each petal is actually a flower in itself, having all the necessary parts to be deemed a whole flower.  I'll believe it, botany class being so far behind me.  So I really separated all the flowers from the flower head, many times over.  I was rudely interrupted halfway through the process by a Kirby salesman who practically forced his way into my house and thought I was rude for kicking him out - but that's another story altogether.  It took several hours to amass nine cups of "petals" at any rate and they are patiently waiting in the fridge for the rest of the ingredients to come together.  Our neighborhood wine-making supply shop is on the other side of town and I need yeast.  All of the other ingredients are on hand, including the tannin and nutrient.  I've also heard (lots of variations and speculations with dandelion wine) that rhubarb can be used in the recipe.  This will require a bit more research.  If I can't find the information, I'll probably used citrus and white grape juice.

This is an ongoing project that will take a year to complete so consider this a first installment.  So far my fingers and nails are nearly permanently stained and my blue jeans bear bright yellow blotches from kneeling in the field.  It's all good.

Stinging Nettle

A couple of nights ago my husband and I were taking some yard waste to a compost pile behind the barn.  I noticed some wood sticking out of an old manure pile and when I went to investigate, was painfully stung on the hand.  It wasn't a bee, though it felt like it.  It was STINGING NETTLE, a nasty barnyard weed that injects poison into anything that brushes up against it.  My hand burned painfully for the rest of the evening.

I did some research on the plant though, having never encountered it before and learned that it was edible.  THAT plant?  Edible???  You've got to be kidding me!  The white, raised welt on my hand protested.   But apparently it's true and nettle is considered a medicinal herb, once used and eaten by the Native Americans.  I feel bad for the desperate person who was driven to try this one.  But anyway, once you carefully gather the leaves and boil them, they are supposed to be healthier than spinach and just as tasty.  Intrigued.

These carefully plucked leaves are still very dangerous.  You can see the small hair-like barbs that inflict great pain.

So the next day I went out armed with gloves and a shopping bag.  I filled the bag and brought them in the house.   It turned out we had a lot of them back there, plenty.  Not wanting to poison my entire family, I decided to whip up a batch of them for myself.  The collected leaves were very fragrant, herbally so.  Following some directions I found online for proper care of the leaves, I soaked them in warm water.  Supposedly that is supposed to draw out the toxins.  However, after the required amount of time, I strained them out and began sorting through them to remove rogue stems.  It wasn't a minute before my fingers started to burn so I turned to snipping them with gloves.  What did I learn?  Soaking does not remove all of the toxin.  It turns out that this was in the fine print after that particular set of instructions.

Boiling the stinging nettle leaves takes away the sting.

Anyway, the recipe that I chose to make, to soften the blow of what I deemed to be a brave endeavor, was a Swedish soup called Nasselsoppa.  It's basically a cream of spinach soup recipe with nettles in place of the more common leafy green.  So I boiled the leaves as per the instructions.  They smelled of cooked spinach so that was promising.  Everything else was fairly straight forward, the usual roux, cream and stock.  I have to say, it tasted really good.  My only issue with the soup is that it acted like a strong diuretic.  I mean, STRONG, like stronger than a few cups of regular black coffee strong.  I think next time I would not use the cooking water in the soup, like it called for.  The cooking water is bound to contain a lot of the substances found in nettle that act in certain medicinal ways.  It was a dark tea color after cooking and reading up on that phenomenon, yes, it can act as a diuretic and is thus used for lowering blood pressure.  This is not a problem that I have.

The finished soup.  I did not add the full amount of nettles to the soup, erring on the side of caution.  The blue on the egg is from a dyed Easter egg.

That said though, it was a great experience.  I was stung, I got revenge and learned a lot in the process.  Stinging nettle is a fascinating, and tasty, plant.