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Successful Scouting Missions July 17, 2014

As my interest in foraging grew, I began to explore new territory. My workplace and backyard were well known to me, but there were other locations nearby that looked equally promising. The current bushes by the river were loaded as were the juniper trees. And then, there was the canal a half-mile from my home where every season, the cattails grew tall and thick.

It was this canal which drew my attention early this spring and, just after the snow had melted, I wandered down for a scouting mission. This would be a precursor to later foraging adventures and was designed to give me the “lay of the land”. I was looking for several things as I walked (and advise that you do as well, if foraging is in your future):

1. Was the soil near the bank secure? As the season pressed on, the canal would fill with water and I wanted to be certain that I knew the best way to and from the cattails without risking getting soaked or, worse yet, drowned.

2. Were there obstacles in the path that might be hidden once the brush had grown up? Among these were blocks of crumbled cement, bent rebar, collapsed barbed wire, and a proliferation of ground squirrel holes.

3. Were there any particular dangers posed by the wildlife? There weren’t any tracks to indicate that larger wildlife took an interest in the area (though I knew this might change as the year wore on). There were ducks, ground squirrels, and a feral cat living in a hold across the ditch, but the area seemed reasonably free of anything territorial enough or large enough to take me on. (Though I made a note to avoid both the squirrels and the cat during future ventures.)

4. Were there any human dangers? With gangs on the rise in my local area, I admit that I was also on the lookout for tags indicating that some unscrupulous characters had claimed the area for their own. I also kept an eye open for less hazardous signs of human activity including “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” indicators.

5. Were there any chemical threats? There was one final issue of importance and this one couldn’t be settled in the course of a single mission: was anyone spraying the foraging area for weeds or insects? The very presence of the cattails seemed to indicate that at minimum, no herbicides targeting monocots were being applied, but this didn’t mean that the area and the food grown in it was entirely safe. I’d have to keep my eyes open throughout the season to ensure that the health of my foraging area did not become a threat to the health of my family.

The scouting mission complete, I was ready to move on with my plan. There would be cattail on the menu this summer… though I felt it wise not to mention its addition to my family until after they’d partaken of the meal.


Eat This: An Introduction to Foraging July 10, 2014

My introduction to foraging was an accident. The fruiting plants in the nursery were producing, but the customers weren’t there to purchase them. As I gazed at the bright red berries, I couldn’t avoid the sense that letting them stay there to rot was a shame. So I plucked them and popped them into my mouth.

The same was true for the little pear tree planted in the windbreak. Hidden between overgrown spruce trees, potted plants and a field of tall grass, it was hardly noticeable. The pears were not large, but the tiny tree was laden with them and I decided to take a chance. What I discovered was a delight which, for weeks to come, would form a key part of my lunch.
And that was when everything changed. As I sat there eating my free fruit, I began to wonder what other overlooked food might be available in the local area… and whether I could find enough to provide an entire meal. Might foraging be a way to bring down a grocery bill while retaining the nutritional value necessary for survival. It seemed likely. After all, people around the world have been “gathering” their food for millennia. And if they could do it, so could I.

This, of course, merited a trip to the local book store where I picked up a copy of “Edible Wild Plants” by Thomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman. The volume was a treasure trove of information about over 200 North American plants. It included information about how best to prepare and serve each along with warnings about varieties which had been known to cause allergic reactions and even which plants might be confused with poisonous cousins.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered rose hips, sumac berries, wild currents, and the fruit of the hawthorn tree. I shared these delights willingly with my coworkers who quickly came to anticipate my sudden appearance from behind a hedge or inside a grove with fruit in hand and a command to “eat this”. (It is a tribute to my trustworthiness that nearly every one of my coworkers complied with my orders and, in turn, discovered a variety of pleasant alternatives to grocery store fare.)

I confess that I wasn’t bold enough to try everything that was in season. Dandelion is, after all, a weed (though it wasn’t for many centuries) and cattails are… well, fuzzy. Still, it was enough to be going forward on and it wasn’t long before I was providing quite a few snacks and an occasional meal consisting solely of foraged foods. This, however, would not be enough to satisfy my curiosity and my odd interest in a lost art. It was time to expand my horizons. (To be continued…)


Starting with SCOBY December 5, 2013

I admit that I have a weakness for soda.  It isn’t the caffeine or even the sugar… it’s the bubbles.  Over the years, I’ve done a number of things designed to cut down on the amount of pop I consume.  From Lenten fasts to diets, I “give up” my cans of cola at least once a year… only to find myself reverting to them again after a period of time just long enough to prove that I don’t have an addiction.

The real problem with my habit (aside from the caffeine headaches I get each time I quit) is that most sodas contain a high amount of sugar.  I’ve tried a number of “bubbly” substitutes over the years and have, sadly, been disappointed with each.  Simply adding carbonation to a beverage does not make it palatable, nor does substituting an artificial sweetener.  It seemed that I was destined to guzzle pop forever and it wasn’t until I met SCOBY that my aspirations to quit really had a chance..

For those unfamiliar with the term, “SCOBY” is an acronym standing for “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast” and it’s the key ingredient in the oriental drink known as Kombucha.  Essentially a large, non-hallucinogenic mushroom, SCOBY helps to ferment tea, turning it into a bubbly (non-alcoholic) delight.  My first taste resulted in an indescribably state of ecstasy.  I had finally found a substitute for soda!

Of course, buying bottles from the store promised to be an expensive proposition, so I decided to try my hand at brewing my own.  It was a simple process which began with buying a starter SCOBY online.  Once the product arrived, I had merely to brew a tea of my choice.  I began with a gallon of ginger, but soon swapped over to lavender, since I appreciated the subtly sweet taste of the common flower.  A good three tablespoons of buds in a gallon of boiling water was sufficient to infuse the liquid with the desired flavor.

After brewing the tea, I took it off the burner and dumped a cup of sugar into the mix, stirring thoroughly until it was fully dissolved.  This may sound a bit counter intuitive for a low-sugar drink, but it’s an important step, since the bacteria and yeast in the SCOBY must feed off the sugar in order for fermentation to take place.  After a week, the sugar content of the beverage is actually quite low – often 2 grams in 20 ounces!

Waiting until the contents of my pot had cooled to room temperature, I added the liquid to my fermentation jar (actually just a cheap glass candy jar) and placed the SCOBY inside.  (It is important to wait until the liquid cools in order to avoid accidentally killing the SCOBY.)  Because the process moves more quickly at warmer climates, I attached a reptile tank heater which I’d acquired at the local pet store to the outside of the jar and plugged it in.  Then, rubber-banding a piece of cheese cloth over the jar, I waited.  A week later, I had a full gallon of my soda substitute, ready for refrigeration.

While my family still refuses to imbibe my “experiment”, the simple process yields infinite possibilities and it doesn’t take long before drinkers like myself find ourselves experimenting with fermentation time (longer = tangier) and varied mixtures of herbs.  Each brew has its own unique qualities and, while you won’t get the same consistency from one batch to the next, the journey is half the fun.  I heartily encourage everyone to give it a try, if only by purchasing a bottle at their local health food store.  If you already brew your own, please feel free to share some of your favorite mixtures in the comment box below.  Adventures are always best when shared!

*This blog is designed to be informational only.  Readers understand that they are wholly responsible for their own actions and that the author bares no responsibility for the use or misuse of the information contained herein.


Featuring Fermentation: A Sauerkraut Primer September 26, 2013

Filed under: Cuisine,Fermentation,German,Homesteading — acgheen @ 12:00 am
Tags: ,

It started with a copy of “Urban Farm” magazine.  Or more precisely, with an offer for “Urban Farm”.  I wouldn’t have considered myself incurably in love with the publication, but every now and then, when I saw it on a news stand, I’d pick up a copy.  Since this happened a couple times each year and the advertisement I had just received offered a full year’s subscription for the price of those two issues, I figured it was worth the investment.

The first issue arrived and it didn’t take me long to recognize that “fermentation” was the running theme.  To be honest, I’d never considered just how many of the foods I enjoyed started with this particular form of decomposition.  And when I read instructions for making my own sauerkraut, I thought I’d give it a try.

I started with the rudimentary instructions provided and forgoing the investment of a fermentation crock, picked up a small crockpot instead.  The ceramic dish would hold a small amount of cabbage and would (according to my best estimations) make enough kraut for a single meal.  After grating a head of cabbage, I layered it into the dish – interspersing each layer with a generous helping of kosher sea salt.  Packing the contents as tightly as I could, I set the dish aside on the counter to let the salt work its magic.  Within several hours, a brine had formed and the fermentation had begun.

Over the next several days, I watched the dish carefully.  Not panicking when pink mold appeared on top, I removed the effected cabbage and continued with my experiment.  About a week in, it was evident that all was not well.  The pink mold had spread from the top and the entire project had to be abandoned.

Not to be deterred, I fell back upon the old adage that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  And, in this case, doing it right involved some shopping.  Popping online to www.Amazon.com, I selected a TSM 20 Liter Stone Weight and a 55 liter TSM Fermentation Pot.  (My family consumes a great deal of sauerkraut, but it wasn’t until the pot arrived that I realized just how big a 55 liter pot actually is!)

The day came when the pot appeared on my porch and I was delighted to discover that the online pictures did not do justice to the work of art that sat before me in my living room.  Handmade in Poland, the crock looked elegant enough to sit in the same room with honored guests… and thanks to a water reservoir at the top (a feature missing from my tiny crock pot), could do so without the offensive aroma produced by the latter.

After taking a day or two to admire my new acquisition, I purchased a handful of cabbages (8, to be precise), chunked them up and, once more interspersed them with salt.  This proved more of a challenge than I had anticipated, since 8 heads of cabbage neatly fill a 55 liter pot to the brim and it took a little effort to fit my stone weight inside the container!  I then left the ingredients to do their work.

A day later, a brine had formed and, seeing that it was insufficient to cover the top of the cabbage, I topped it off with some cool tap water (enough to completely cover the cabbage).  I filled the reservoir with water and it wasn’t long before the pot was burping away, venting the excess gas created by the fermentation process.

I waited a few weeks until the contents of the pot had settled down (now filling the crock just half way) and snuck a forkful.  The kraut which greeted me was smooth and buttery, lacking in the stringy texture or vinegary bite of the store-bought stuff.  We gave it a first try in a quick pressure cooker dish which I have enjoyed since childhood and the entire family agreed that the experiment was a victory.  Now, my only problem is finding a way to use 2 gallons of sauerkraut in a hurry!


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