Thursday, September 8, 2011

Clover heads? Ok. Locust seeds? Better not...

Last weekend, Mike and I decided to go on another foraging adventure. We decided to try another spot in the area, so we set out for Port Washington. Bike trails are great for urban foraging because usually it's like cutting a path straight through the woods, but it's paved. The Interurban trail is one of the most extensive paved trails in the state, stretching from Mequon to Belgium. Along this path I have observed wild asparagus, wild grapes, wood sorrel, high-bush cranberry, raspberries, rose hips,and many other great edibles. And in the morning, further north on the trail, not too many people are out, giving you the impression that you are all alone, a welcome feeling when you live smack in the middle of the densest neighborhood in the city.

When we arrived in Port (as the natives say), we parked right next to the start of the trail, adjacent to the old light tower. We were once again armed with plastic bags and scissors. As we started off along the trail, we began to look for plants to harvest. It being close to autumn, most of the fruits were gone, except for the cranberry, which aren't ready yet, and the wild grape, of which we had had our fill. About 15 minutes in, single berries dotted the raspberry bushes, and we nibbled on the them, so long as a bird hadn't stolen half of the berry before us. We walked and walked. This had once been our favorite biking spot; somehow our memories of the distance from point A to point B were coming up in bike miles. Walking took much longer than we would have thought. At a certain point, I started to feel hungry. Hunger then gave way to desperation as the coffee I had had that morning turned into low blood sugar. I was about ready to pass out. I needed to eat something.

All around me were light purple clover flowers. I realized that I should probably eat some, since I felt light-headed; at this point we had crossed the over pass of the highway, and were about 2 miles from where we started. I grabbed about 6 plump, spiky purple clover flowers and started eating. They can be quite good, with a texture that is not my favorite, sort of grainy and grassy and the same time. The flavor though is worth it. A kind of perfumy, honey flavor, with a hint of sweetness. In about 3 minutes, I felt much better, and we decided to head back to the car. We had not really found anything to harvest.

About 1/2 mile before the car, I looked to my left and saw white and purple pods hanging down from a tree with pinnate leaves. I thought it looked like a black locust tree. I had never really noticed these before, so I got out my field guides. These were definitely black locust pods. In Sam Thayer's book The Forager's Harvest he explains that many people say these are poisonous to humans. He goes on to say, however that Euell Gibbons claimed that he and his family used to harvest the green seeds and cook and eat them without any consequences. He also says that he has eaten them and that he never had a problem. So Mike and I did something that we should never have done. We opened up a couple and ate some seeds. They were delicious! They were a cross between raw sugar snap peas and green beans. Upon further inspection, I realized that the book made a difference between raw and cooked. The cooking process took care of the toxins.

Now we had really done it! As we walked back to the car, Mike told me he felt strange. I asked him what he felt like. He told me that he was spacy and sweaty and that he felt shaky and was extremely hungry. Of course these were the very symptoms I had experienced a half hour before. He had the coffee jitters, but of course our mental state was all about being poisoned by the seeds.

He began to eat wood sorrel and started to feel much better. We then headed into town to eat at some family restaurant. I was pretty worried, especially since I had only eaten three seeds and Mike had eaten like three pods. I was afraid I had killed my friend!

That night, I called him to see if he was still alive. Then, for good measure, the next morning, I sent this text: still alive? He never answered back. Luckily he called me later that day. We had survived, but we will never again eat anything where there are conflicting stories. I looked up black locust seeds, and apparently if we had been horses, it might have been a different ending...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wild grapes, cont'd.

The last time I posted something on wild grapes, I had found some growing along the chain-link fence that separates the bike path from Miller parkway, just near the stadium. I tasted one, but did not attempt to harvest any, since they were most likely covered with car exhaust and other noxious substances coming from the the road. This year, however, I found that there were many other vines growing within a mile from the place where I first laid eyes on this plant I remember from my childhood.

I finally decided that I would actually challenge myself to do the thing I didn't believe I could do: make grape jelly. For some reason, I hd always been intimidated by the thought of the effort it took to make jelly. Perhaps it was the mysterious pectin, or perhaps the thought that I would have to learn canning methods that prevented any bacteria from killing me. In any case, it was kismet that I read the chapter on wild grapes in Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus; there, he gives a recipe that just seems manageable. I also discovered that the only reason to can something is if it won't be put in the fridge and consumed within a month. These two bits of information allowed me to conquer my fear of jellies and jams.

In order to stalk some great vines and fruit, I biked almost every day near the place I had first seen the many vines growing over a 3 mile stretch on a bike trail near my house. When I had finally figured out which stretch had the nicest and ripest fruit, I called my foraging partner, Mike, and we made a date to harvest that next weekend.

Starbucks, 8 am. We caffeinated ourselves with admittedly very un-local beans, and set out to the harvesting spot. Each of us armed with plastic bags and a pair of scissors, we walked about a one and a half-mile stretch. From vine to vine we filled our bags with mostly ripened, but a some green, grapes. (Most recipes say to use a mixture since the unripe ones have more pectin in them.) When finished, we each had about 1.5 to 2 quarts of bunches of mostly dark purple, pea-sized, surprisingly insect-free grapes. We could not of course stop ourselves from eating a few, although eating is not really the right word. You mostly suck the juice and spit out the relatively large seeds and tough skin.

When I got home, I put the grapes in a big pot of water to wash them, then I drained the water and put them back in the pot. The question now was whether to boil or not to boil...Gibbons says yes and Sam Thayer, a more recent foraging expert says no. I went with Euell (No offense Sam, but Euell has been a hero of mine for a long time.)
I put enough water in the pot to almost cover the grapes but not quite. I then used a plastic potato masher, being careful not to crush the seeds, and mashed the fruit until it seemed as though all of the juice that could be crushed out, was crushed out. I then put the fruit on a medium high flame for about 15 minutes, after which I drained it in a jelly bag. I read somewhere not to squeeze the bag, but I did anyway, since there was so much more juice in the fruit left over after I drained it. I threw away the pulp and the bowl of juice was covered and placed in the refrigerator for two days, in order to let the tartrates in the grapes sink to the bottom of the bowl. This substance is not wanted and will make the jelly gritty.

After two days in the fridge, I carefully poured the juice into a pot, making sure not to get any of the silt that had settled on the bottom in the juice. I then followed Euell's recipe, which calls for a cup of sugar per cup of juice. I dissolved the sugar in the juice and cooked it until it boiled, then I dissolved some pectin (Euell's recipe does not call for pectin, but I was afraid that this grape variety did not have enough in it to really make a jelly) in a little water and put that into the juice. Once it was boiling hard for about three minutes, I took it off the stove and poured it into a sterilized pickle jar and put the lid on. As soon as it was cool enough to touch, into the refrigerator it went. The next day, it had set; the flavor is much more intense than the stuff you buy. It has a tartness reminiscent of currants. Imagine a fruit growing everywhere, but no one but the birds enjoying it! It's well worth the time to notice these little purple berries. If you're into local food, what could be more local?