Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How to cook nettles

© 2012 Joshua Stark

Here's a short video produced by the amazing Abby on how to prepare nettles to eat.  I worked with our native nettle for this one:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Useful Plants of California's Edgelands: Greens!

© 2012 Joshua Stark

Here at the end of February California's Central Valley is exploding with wonderful food.  It's greens time!
Late Winter, California Delta.  Note the leafless grapevines, and the thick patch of greens.

Many of California's great greens are non-native invasive plants like thistle, mallow, dandelions, and the ubiquitous mustard and radishes, though a couple of natives can be found, as well (miners' lettuce being the most common).
A couple of different greens here:  milk thistle, wild radish and mustard.

Most of the broad-leaved plants in your local empty lot are edible, though "edible" depends on a number of factors, taste not the least among them.  Here are some tips for collecting greens:

First, identify your plants.  Yes, Google is good for that as a start, but there are a couple of decent books out there, too -- most notably Charlotte Bringle Clark's "Edible and Useful Plants of California".  Around Sacramento, the only dangerous things you might confuse for greens (that I know of) are hemlock and nightshade, so definitely learn how to identify them.

Second, know your picking spots.  While many forage plants are left alone, greens often get sprayed as vile pests.  If the flora has unnatural colors, or the habitat has unnaturally geometric patterns (say, a straight line of wilted plants), you can be pretty sure that they've been sprayed.  Also, the closest edges of roads tend to get pollution and spraying, and are often yellowed or brown, and stunted.
Mustard plant, right up against the road... probably not a plant to forage.  (Photo credit to my five year old daughter.)

Now that you've gone around your neighborhood and noticed all the mustard, what next?  Taste it.  Many plants have different flavors, depending on their location, soil, Sun, and air.  I have found mustard plants that would challenge even horseradish for wonderful pungency, and others that tasted a little bit blander than grass.  Also, don't pick old plants.  An old "green" is one that has flowered at some point in its life, and size doesn't determine age.   If the plants are just about to flower, you've hit the greens jackpot.  Pick those tops (Hank calls 'em wild broccoli raab) as well as the leaves.  Make sure that what you are picking is worth picking by eating a bit of it.  (If you are worried about a little dirt, then why are you out here picking wild stuff?!!)  If it's good, load up.

When picking, don't pick the parts you'll just cut off later, anyway.  Pick the leaf up to the point where the stem starts to get tough. 

I've found that about 3/4th's-ful of a paper bag is good for our family of four.  Remember, greens often cook down - lose volume - and that they wilt quickly.  Cook them the same day and freeze them if you must, or eat them then and there or within the next couple of days. 

Technical-ish description:

Greens are found in various plant families.  In California's Central Valley, the most common are probably wild mustard (Brassica campestris) and radish and wild radish (Raphanus sativa, R. raphanistrum), both in the family Brassicaceae, a very edible family.  Size varies greatly, but the best foraging plants will be 18" to three feet tall, with big, broad leaves.


Cook wild greens like you would domestic greens, and realize that if you bought dandelions or mustard, you probably could have picked their equivalents for free.  Traditionally, greens are boiled with a ham hock or smoked neck bones, although if you want a vegetarian version, use vegetable bouillon and smoked salt.  Saute' an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic in butter or oil for a few minutes, then add the washed and cut greens, stirring them all together.  Add a cup or so of stock or water, add the bones if using them, (If you like spice, add red pepper flakes now, too) and cook, covered, for 15-20 minutes. 

A tip for quicker preparation:  If you picked them without the tough stems, you've won half the battle.  When washing them, grab a few leaves at a time, run them in water, then roll them up lengthwise and squeeze the water out of them.  Keep them rolled and cut them in 1/2" strips starting from the top.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Useful plants of California's Edgelands: Electric Grass, the marginal lands super-food!

© 2011 Joshua Stark

When I first learned that stinging nettles were not only edible, but delicious and extra-nutritious, I was surprised.

You see, like any sane person, I'd never handled stinging nettle on purpose, before - when you grow up next to a plant everybody calls "electric grass", you tend to stay away.  But my foraging master friends, Hank Shaw over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, and Kari at the Erratic Crafter were both so jazzed to hear about the plethora of nettles on the Delta that I was quickly convinced to run out and pick some.

I also did a little research (if Google can be called "research") on the nutritional value of nettles.  I found differing accounts of their value (thanks, Internet), anywhere from 20-40% protein, with high levels of vitamins A, B, and C, and possibly some minerals. I'm no nutritionist, but I do know that greens are good for ya.

Pick nettles when they are young, and take the top 4-6" of the plant.  Nettles require some special equipment for picking - namely, a glove or two, snips, and a bag.  Their stinging hairs contain formic acid, which can cause itching, swelling and burning, and I'm fairly certain that it isn't an allergic reaction, it's actual damage, so don't mess with them.

Carefully... carefully...

Preparing nettles is easy; here is what Hank taught me:
Get a big ol' pot of saltwater boiling, and a big ol' bowl of icewater. Throw in (with the tongs! Use the tongs!) a bunch of the nettles, and let them cook up for about 20-30 seconds. Pull them out, and plunge them into the icewater, to preserve their color. Next, roll them up into tea towels, wring 'em out, vacuum seal and freeze.

Nettles are a great green growing generously at your local marginal land, I'm sure. So, next time you are walking the dog by that patch of nettles at the edge of the park, take note, and come back when the little ones are just coming up. You can get yourself a real treat, and get to freak out your friends and family at the same time.


Technical-ish description:

Nettles, Urtica dioica (stinging nettle), Urtica urens (common or dwarf nettle)
A small to medium (10"- 8 ft.) plant growing in single, straight stalks.  Dwarf nettle resembles short mint, with small, deep green leaves and square stalks.  It does not, however, taste like mint, especially right off the plant!  Stinging nettles grow tall, often in ditches or near water sources in California, and their leaves and stalks are lighter green and very hairy. 


Nettles can replace spinach in any recipe.  They are much milder than spinach, but their nutritional qualities, color and texture are similar.  I use them in egg dishes.

Scrambled eggs and nettles:

2 eggs
1/4 Cup milk
1/4 Cup prepared nettles
1/2 Tb. butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Scramble the eggs with the milk and nettles.  

Heat a skillet on medium, add butter, and when just melted and sizzling, pour in the eggs.  Turn down to low, and watch.  When the eggs bubble for a bit, chop and turn them in the pan.  When they reach the consistency you like, turn off the heat and put 'em on a plate.  Obviously, this recipe is for folks who don't have a great deal of experience in the kitchen.

Hank Shaw has a great page on nettles, and Langdon Cook has quite a few recipes, too - including ingenious "nettle pesto pops".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The end of this line...kinda

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here, then, is the last(ish) blog entry for my 'Lands on the Margin'.  I really like the idea, and it's tough to end it as a separate idea from my other blogs.  However, if you are interested in the concept, please note that I will be posting 'Lands' entries at my other blog, "Agrarianista." 

I've come to realize a couple of things over the past year with regards to my version of home agrarianism and urban homesteading:  It involves a strong, well-balanced connection to the local wild lands. 

Joel Salatin once noted to Michael Pollan that his farm wasn't just the "productive" acres, but needed the open, wild space where he didn't directly grow anything.  Watershed quality was one factor, and I believe the windbreak it provided was another. 

I'm no Joel Salatin, but I can parallel the concept, and especially in California.  I do some things on my little chunk of land pretty well (I've got duck eggs coming out my hoo-haa), but other things escape the capabilities of my soil (like squashes, interestingly enough). 

But, as in the tradition of thousands of years of humans living here (and I count myself abundantly lucky to be grafted to the tree of California history), I rely to a great deal on what the wild has to offer me.  In particular, I rely on the things I may forage throughout the year from the edgelands, from figs to river reed. 

So, I've moved my blog posts on this concept to my Agrarianista blog.  I've also moved my occasional series posts (edible plants, now edible and useful plants, and gear reviews) to stand-alone pages at Agrarianista. 

I will also keep the 'Lands on the Margin' blog name and space, just in case.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quick trip to the bypass: Grapes

© 2010 Joshua Stark

My daughter and I took a quick walk onto the Sacramento Bypass, just to see how it looked.  Apart from the feral sauna we found (ever heard of craigslist, A-hole!?)...

we also came across some ripe wild grapes:

We ate a couple, and if I had the time right now, I'd be back out there picking for grape jelly. 

We also came upon these beautiful hooker's evening primrose:

Please excuse the light posting lately, I'm running on little sleep, and looking for work.  Tangentially, if you know of any work to be had, shoot me a line.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome my boy!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A quick post, asking you to welcome our new baby boy!  Ruben Antonio William Stark, born last Friday.  Both Mama and baby are fine, although none of us here have gotten much sleep.

We are now four in our family, and I am constantly amazed at the miracles I've been allowed, and frequently overwhelmed with emotion.  This has been one roller coaster of a year...

(note:  I don't post pictures of my kids because they are very young.  When they are old enough to consent to their photos, I'll do it.  Or, maybe if we get some nice portraits done at some point.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Quick note on foraging

© 2010 Joshua Stark

If you haven't yet read it, Hank Shaw has a great post up on his musings about foraging vs. gardening.  Very interesting read.