Category Archives: Foraging

Time to Eat

In the past week or two the sheer volume and scope of food rising out of the earth has exploded. One can literally make a meal standing in the middle of the garden, picking, and eating.

Lots of what is ready in my garden never makes it into the house (the strawberries especially), but I did manage to get enough basil into my basket to makethe first batch of pesto of the season on Monday, tossing some into some cappelini and fresh sugar snap peas and freezing the rest. On Wednesday I harvested kale, cilantro, more sugar snaps, and mushrooms for a stir-fry with ginger and tofu. I have also picked six pints of strawberries this week; two went into the freezer for ice cream I’m planning to make for a special party the week after next, and the rest will go into some jam.

The mulberries are starting to come in, too, and a lot of folks have been picking them off the trees that hang heavy over the streets in my neighborhood and making pies. I picked about three cups today during my long morning walk with Caleb, and when I got home I decided I wanted to try making some scones. I modified a recipe I found for oatmeal scones, adding a touch of orange extract and using the mulberries instead of currants, and here is the result. In a few minutes I will  take a few of these next door to my neighbors.

The sugar snaps are copious and remarkably sweet this year. I love them in the pasta and stir fry, but I also love them fresh and crunchy, right off the vine.  That’s the experience I had in mind when I took a platter of them to a little farewell gathering this week for a friend who is moving away. I mounded some hummus in the middle of them, tossed on some kalamata olives and feta cheese, drizzled it all with olive oil, and sprinkled salt. Here’s what the platter looked like.

Enjoy this lovely day! I’m going to pick more sugar snaps.

2 Comments

Filed under Feasting, Foraging, Gardening

Simmins? (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Fourth”)

Recently I took Caleb on one of our long rambling walks to a small pond where he likes to splash around. When we reached the pond, Caleb trotted up to say hi to a woman who was sitting on her cooler next to the water with a spinning rod and a plastic container full of night crawlers. Immediately he was distracted by a little pile of fried pork rinds she had spilled on the ground next to the night crawlers, and delighted (he is a Southern Urban Forager, too), he helped himself.

In the middle of my apology for my dog’s doggielike behavior, the fisherwoman interrupted me:

“Simmins?”

“Uh . . . I’m sorry?”

“Are those simmins?” She pointed to the plastic grocery sack I had in my hand, full of soft, bulging, oozing golden fruit.

Oh! Yes, they are!” I replied, suddenly understanding that she meant my persimmons.

I offered her some and she reached into my sack and took a handful. I warned her to brush them off before eating them because I had picked them up off the ground underneath a tree that was dropping them like crazy, but she just gave each one a quick blow and popped them into her mouth, spitting the seeds onto the ground. She smiled at me.  “We used to eat simmins when I was a little girl.”

I used to eat persimmons when I was a little girl, too. There was a tree across the road from our house, right next to where the school bus let us off. Before walking home in the fall, I’d go over and give the tree a good shake, then gather up what fell and cram them into my mouth. You had to be careful, though. An unripe persimmon will turn your mouth wrongside out.

Eating a ripe one, though, is like eating the flesh of the autumn sun — dense and spicy-sweet, almost warm. The persimmons that grow wild around here are nothing like the Japanese ones you see at markets. They are soft and easily mooshed — too soft for commercial transport. But that’s what makes them so delicious.

On this day I gathered up about a quart and a half from a tree we came across during our walk to the pond. I probably got as many stuck to my shoes as I got into my sack — the ground was layered with rotting ones, and my feet slid around as I gathered. It’s a good year for persimmons. The old wisdom is that a persimmon isn’t ripe until it has been frostbit. But that isn’t true — we haven’t had temperatures below 55 yet and I found plenty of ripe fruit.

I wished the fisherwoman good luck, and Caleb and I set out for home with our bounty. Then I made a run of persimmon-orange jam. I rinsed the earth off the fruit and ran it through a food mill. Even then, the milled flesh was the consistency of cake batter.

In a pot I combined it with sugar and orange juice and added a dash of nutmeg. I cooked the whole mess down until it was so sturdy it practically stood up in the pot. Then I filled five jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about 20 minutes.

Won’t this be a delicious layer in some kind of tart?

**Important note if you try this yourself: Alone, persimmons are not acidic enough to prevent botulism. The orange juice should give the butter enough acidity to make it safe to can without refrigeration, but just to be extra-safe I decided to make this a “freezer jam,” which means the sealed jars will stay in the freezer until opened, then they will live in the fridge until the stuff is gone — which probably won’t take long!

Leave a comment

Filed under Foraging, Putting Up

“I don’t believe I said.” (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Third”)

My dad is more than happy to tell you the story of the eighteen-inch wild brown trout he caught during the green drake hatch. He delights in talking about the beautiful but apparently untouched pool he spotted on the last day of a camping trip. He grins as he describes the visions of that “honey hole” that haunted his thoughts for the next several days, until he finally went back to it around dark-thirty, waded in knee-deep, cast a line, and in no time had caught (and released) that big’un. He will even show you the pictures.

Just don’t ask him, “Now, where did you say that hole was?”

Because he will say, “I don’t believe I said.”

I know how he feels. For years during the early summer, I looked forward to walking over to a brambly but abundant patch of blackberries on the side a road near my house. That spot has given me untold pints of jam. But last year, heartbreak. Someone — more than one someone, I think — had gotten there first and cleaned it out. And then later in the year, someone else came through and bushwhacked the brambles, and that was the end of my blackberry patch.

All year long I grieved my loss. It just seems ridiculous to me to buy blackberries when they grow prodigiously all across the South, but a thicket of wild, publicly accessible blackberries in the city is a rare and beautiful thing. So you perhaps can imagine my joy when, on a long ramble with my dog one day this past spring, I discovered a new patch — this one bigger and more abundant than my old one, harder to reach, and less likely to get mowed down. At this point the berries were tiny, hard, and green. But there would be gallons upon gallons.

Over the next several weeks I kept an eye on “my” spot. I visited frequently to see how the fruit was coming along. I wanted to greedily, jealously guard it from other blackberry hounds that might coming sniffing. And then early this morning, I went back with a sack. In an hour and a half I had picked more than a gallon of berries, and there are plenty more to come. Best of all, I saw nary another soul prowling around my patch. May it stay that way.

This may be my honey hole.

I will give you a jar of jam at Christmas. I will make a blackberry cobbler and joyfully share it with you. I will pour you a tiny glass of blackberry cordial to sip. But don’t ask me, “Where did you say you got those berries?”

Because I don’t believe I said.

This may be an extraordinary year for my newfound secret patch, because by all appearances, 2010 is the Year of the Fruit. Regular visitors to this blog have read my rhapsody on the strawberry and my ode to  mulberry pie. Today I made 22 jars of blackberry jam using basically the same method that I used for the strawberry jam. With the two cups of berries remaining, I riffed on a blackberry cordial recipe with vodka, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick (in eight weeks or so I’ll let you know how that worked out).

Then there are the peaches, which I did actually buy during my very slow road trip last week. I picked up five pounds of Fort Valley, Georgia’s, best from a roadside farm stand. I have heard it said that due to a magic season of atmospheric forces, this year’s peaches are the earliest, most plentiful, and best-tasting in many years. I have to agree. Many I just ate standing over my kitchen sink so that I could rinse my chin afterward. Several wound up in two batches of ice cream — one for Father’s Day, the other for the Sunday night gang.

And oh, the cherries! Over Memorial Day weekend, my family gathered at our mountain homestead in Rabun County, Georgia. On Saturday afternoon, my father, niece, and I walked down the hill to check out the fruit trees that we planted about thirty years ago (I have a hazy memory of being in that orchard with my parents and brother digging holes, placing root balls, and watering by Coleman lantern on a very chilly autumn night.) There amidst the apple and pear trees, blueberry bushes, and grapevines (all holding promise of great things to come later this season) were two cherry trees absolutely loaded with fruit. The birds were none to happy with us for pulling down limbs and loading our sacks with bunches of cherries, but there was plenty for all. They looked like grapes growing on those branches. I took home maybe five pounds of cherries and made cherry-almond-chocolate chunk ice cream for the Sunday night gang, added cherries to some chicken salad, then the rest joined the strawberries and mulberries in the freezer for concoctions later on.

Here are 41 seconds of Dad and me at the cherry tree.

Still to come are the figs and blueberries growing in my yard. It will require some stealth to get to them both before the birds do. But that’s a whole nother story.

5 Comments

Filed under Feasting, Foraging, Putting Up

The Pie Goes Viral (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Second”)

Melanie, this one’s for you. Happy retirement, and may you bake lots for and with that new grandbaby!

Last weekend Caleb had a sleepover with his favorite troublemate, Next-Door Katie, whose family was away for the weekend. One Australian shepherd plus one German shepherd equals more than two, so I was looking for ways to burn off some canine hyperactivity. On Sunday I took about 12o pounds of dog for a long ramble in an open field bordered by some woods and a pond not too far from where I live. The walk came with an unexpected bonus: mulberry trees in full fruit.

I took one of the many, many empty doggie poop bags I had brought along and filled it with these deliciously ripe purple berries. Mulberries look like blackberries, but their flavor isn’t quite so sweet or intense. And there are no briars to contend with. Mulberry juice is deeply hued, though, and it stains liberally.

Mulberry trees grow everywhere around here — they’re considered trash trees — and can be found all along the streets our neighborhood. This year they have been groaning with fruit; I have never seen such a bounty. Kids love to pick and eat them right there in the playground across the street from my house. The fruit is so heavy it falls off the branches and has turned the asphalt of my little street purple. I have tracked mulberry muck onto my kitchen floor by my shoes. The birds love them, too. There is purple bird poo all over my white car at the moment.

I brought my berries into the kitchen with a recent Facebook post from a friend of mine in my mind. Esther had been on a mulberry kick and had made three pies in three nights. I messaged her — could she send the recipe? And did I have to pick out all those little green stems? She shared the recipe (it’s easy and it’s here) and told me not to worry about the stems, that they seemed to dissolve right into the pie.

I modified the recipe a bit — used tapioca instead of flour, added a pinch of allspice and cinnamon, and cut the sugar back to a scant one cup. And I confess to using storebought frozen crusts because I’m terrible at pastry dough.

But that pie. That pie! The perfect, melt-in-your-mouth, not-too-sweetness, a quick surprise shot of the spices, the firm yet berryish texture. It’s impossible to describe the flavor, but it’s nothing like any other fruit pie I have ever had — not quite blackberry, not quite anything else.

We now speak of it reverently in hushed tones as The Pie. The Pie is the boss of me, and I do not worship alone. I posted pictures on Facebook, and the next thing I knew, The Pie had gone viral. Another friend was collecting mulberries from the tree in her yard. I sent Sheryl the recipe that Esther had given me. (Sheryl’s tree was so loaded, she said, that her dog’s butts were purple from sitting beneath it. I forgot to check Caleb and Katie’s.)

I inherited my paternal grandmother’s cookbook collection. Retracing her culinary steps over the years, I discovered the phantom cookbook: all those scribbled notes in the margins of the “real” cookbooks, the index cards with handwritten recipes stuck between two pages, a scrap of personal stationery with a note at the top in the back — “Marjorie’s Meatloaf, but I cut the tomato sauce in half.”

Sheryl's Pie, which is much prettier than mine

In a way, we are doing the same thing, aren’t we? We are, electronically now, passing along our favorite recipes, sharing our tricks and tweaks with one another (Esther recommended cutting the sugar; I suggested the cinnamon and allspice to Sheryl), so that they evolve into something personal, yet with a history. Our grandmothers did this on index cards and scraps of stationery. We are doing it on Facebook.

Yet while our grandmothers’ mulberry pie recipes went viral in one another’s kitchens over coffee, I have never even met Esther in person, although we live in the same city (we connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other). And even though Sheryl lives two blocks away, we’ve only visited face-to-face a couple of times.

Are we closer or more isolated in this digital world? It still feels like a community to me.

5 Comments

Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Foraging

Poke Sallet Granny (or, “The Southern Urban Forager”)

Every day ’fore supper time
She’d go down by the truck patch
And pick her a mess o’ poke sallet
And carry it home in a tote sack . . .

Those lines are from one of my favorite Tony Joe White songs, “Poke Sallet Annie,” but it might as well be called “Poke Sallet Granny” for my maternal grandmother, who loved poke sallet (“salad”) more than anybody I have ever known.

What, you might ask, is poke sallet? If you’re asking, you must not be from these parts. Tony Joe explains it pretty well, actually:

If some of y’all never been down South too much,
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you’ll understand what I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
Looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it poke sallet.
Poke . . . kuh . . . sallet . . . ungh.

Mee-Ma lived with us for awhile when I was in my early teens. She really would take a grocery sack — a poke — and walk the country roads near our house and pick the smallest, tenderest shoots of this weed. She’d bring a ton of it back to the house, wash it thoroughly, then boil it several times until the house stank like some kind of hot sulfur springs. Then she would scramble it in eggs cooked in bacon grease until the eggs were brownish-green and the house really stank. She’d eat the entire mess with a big hunk of cornbread  crumbled up in a tall glass of buttermilk.

Mmmmmmm-mmm!

Pokeweed in late summer

Poke doesn’t grow only in the woods and the fields. Last weekend I was piddling around on the back 40 and watching the chickens forage. They were feasting on the long-legged purple ladies of poke I have let grow freely at the rear of my lot, partly because I think they are rather stately and partly because birds other than the chickens love them for the berries they form in the late summer.

They reminded me that I’ve been meaning to give Mee-Ma’s recipe, which I haven’t tasted since I was about thirteen, a try. So I gathered up a mess in a basket (I didn’t have a poke handy).

Mee-Ma didn’t eat the youngest, smallest leaves just because they were the tastiest. Poke sallet is actually pretty poisonous, the roots and berries especially (though not for birds), and the larger leaves can make you very sick. She boiled them three times because that’s how she cooked the toxins out.

In fact, if you read around, the prevailing wisdom is that only a damn fool would eat poke sallet, even if you cook it over and over again. My favorite dire warning comes from Wikipedia:

The eating of limited quantities of poke, perhaps of the shoots, may cause retching or vomiting after two hours or more. These signs may be followed by dyspnea, perspiration, spasms, severe purging, prostration, tremors, watery diarrhea and vomiting (sometimes bloody) and, sometimes, convulsions. In severe poisonings, symptoms are weakness, excessive yawning, slowed breathing, fast heartbeat, dizziness, and possibly seizures, coma and death.

Well, there’s no fool like a southern fool waxing nostalgic for her dead granny’s weird cooking. Mee-Ma had to have eaten enough poke sallet in her life to kill her several times over, and while she may have suffered from prostration a time or two (mostly due to orneriness, I’d say), she lived a long life and died because she was old and wore out.

So I went with it. Between my obsessive weeding and the chickens’ nibbling, there really wasn’t much in the way of young poke to be gathered. So my mess was pretty small, which might have been a blessing. I gathered what I could, brought it in and gave it a good washing, carefully took out all the stems, and put it through its first cooking in salted boiling water.

Palava with chicken over rice in Liberia

I drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again in more salted water.

Drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again, this time with a hunk of smoked pepper bacon. Now the house was smelling pretty good.

After the third boiling, I noted that the greens were beginning to resemble a traditional palava dish of okra leaves that I had eaten in Liberia a couple of years ago, which had been delicious, so how bad could this be?

Mee-Ma would have answered that there was nothing that bacon grease couldn’t make taste good. So I melted a good tablespoon of it in a skillet and let the slimy poke slide in along with some spring onions. After it sizzled a bit I threw in a couple of eggs and a good dose of salt and pepper. I cooked them down til the eggs were dry.

It looked familiar. Mee-Ma would have eaten it, I think, but she would have fussed at me for not having any cornbread and buttermilk for her.

I washed mine down with a big glass of iced tea. It weren’t too half bad — the poke gave the eggs a darkened flavor that was definitely enhanced by bacon grease. Caleb liked it, too. And in spite of some excessive yawning and a wee bit of perspiration, we both lived to tell the tale — so far.

Here’s what Tony Joe White has to say about it.

2 Comments

Filed under Feasting, Foraging

Stalking the Feral Asparagus

My daily walk to work takes me past a rarity here in Georgia’s most densely populated city—an open lot in a residential neighborhood. There’s a house there, but it sits almost invisible way back off the street, and the expanse before it could reasonably accommodate another house entirely. It won’t surprise me at all when the lot is split and construction starts.

The ancient one

But for now, the lot is the province of the wild and green, though someone at some point had a vegetable garden there. I know this because every spring about this time, a few stalks of asparagus shoot up. It’s nestled amidst a thick, ancient border of monkey grass crammed up against the sidewalk, but there it is, a persistent perennial that has thrived despite what I am guessing is decades of neglect. I like to think of it not as Euell Gibbons’s “wild asparagus,” but more of a feral asparagus—once domesticated, now a resourceful, clever survivor.

Some of the gardening smarty-pants say asparagus can’t really be grown in Georgia. It’s too hot here, too humid. The plants will be too slender, the harvest season too short. But my friend the feral asparagus and I, we know better. For years I have waited to see that perfectly formed stalk shoot up. And for years I have been tempted to harvest it when I know it has reached its tender, crisp perfection and stand there on the sidewalk and eat it raw. But I’m more curious than hungry. I want to see what it will do—how tall it will grow, how much it will fern out, whether the red berries will form then later turn yellow, whether anyone else will notice that that’s an asparagus, for crying out loud.

Skinny leg and all

The feral asparagus inspired me, so I decided last year to try to grow some for myself. It made sense to me that one should plant the crowns in the fall, to give them a cool-season chance to muster up their energy in the earth before the first big show in April. So last September, I did my level best to find some. I googled, emailed, called around, but there were no crowns to be had in the autumn. I even received a stern email lecture from one source about how no asparagus crown grower in his or her right mind would ever sell in the fall. So I waited, chastened, until February, when the seed catalogs arrived, and I ordered myself a batch of twenty-five Jersey Knights.

They arrived in March, looking like a tangle of squid that had been beached for a few days. I got seventeen of them into the ground (the rest I gave away to neighbors) in a couple of choice locations with just enough sun and loamy, well-drained soil. I dosed them with heaps of good compost and long, regular drinks of water.

The first skinny leg poked through about ten days later. It is so hard to resist harvest, but asparagus needs time. A few years of it, in fact. So once again, I find myself waiting and watching the asparagus grow.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to pay my daily respects to my feral friend, with gratitude for the lesson in what can be done.

4 Comments

Filed under Foraging, Gardening