Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Japanese Knotweed: Smart not hard

I have always wanted to grow rhubarb.  Strange assertion, I know, but those of you who read this are aware that this whole blog is predicated on strange.  Yes, I have always wanted a patch of big, green leafy rhubarb with its long thick stalks of red sourness, and I have never had any luck.  Not sure why, maybe I haven't tried enough.  This year, I was up for another try; before I could even put a spade in the ground, I rediscovered something that I had known about for quite a long time, but had never given any serious thought: Japanese knotweed.  

I am what you would call a type A- personality: I am extremely driven, but when it comes to working, I try to work smart, not hard.  All of the type As I know are incredibly industrious and seem to thrive on the work itself.  I am more interested in the product.  So, you might be asking yourself what this has to do with rhubarb...

I have been "foraging" since I was 10 years old and I bought my first book on wild edible plants.  It looked like this:

In 1983, most of the world was infatuated with one-handed sparkly gloves and jelly shoes.


Foraging was not really on most people's agendas and probably even less so ten-year-old boys, although I'm sure many kids have eaten wild plants and just not talked about it.  It's inevitable when you're out playing and you get hungry.  

I'm not even sure foraging was called foraging back then; I think it was just called "weird" or "grody". I mean, you go out and eat stuff that doesn't magically appear in the produce section at the grocery store?  Then again, when you live in subsidized housing and don't have any money, you can be pretty creative with your spare time.  The fact our complex was bounded by woods on one side helped us to pass the time.   

We used to eat even stranger stuff at my house than I did in the field.  My brother's father introduced us to organ meat when I was 9 (heart and kidney), although my mom had already very generously presented us the fantastic opportunity to eat liver and tongue- a vestige of her bubby's cooking back in Philly.  There was milk soup with dumplings, hominy, grits.  Pickled green tomatoes when we could find them, bowties and kasha.  Our favorite sweet was halva, coupled with the fabled Tastykakes my aunt would send us from Philly. We pretty much ate anything that could be consumed.  It's no wonder my sister and I came up with our famous pickle juice and spaghetti concoction.  It's exactly what it purports to be: raw spaghetti noodles broken up and mixed with pickle juice and garlic powder.  The crunch of the noodles and the acridness of the pickle juice was only enhanced by the intensity of the Aldi's garlic powder we sprinkled on the top.  This was our go-to snack.  Yes, we were odd, but we secretly reveled in our oddity.

After these culinary experiences, it is not so difficult for me to label something as food, and so this post comes full circle.  Foraging for me is not odd, nor is it some cool trend like lacto-fermentation or buying organic.  It is part of my childhood collective memory and identity.   So, when given the chance to wait a year until the rhubarb grows or harvest an invasive weed, I chose the latter, of course!  

Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) grows in abandoned lots, back yards, anywhere it can sprout its sourness and is incredibly invasive.  Because of this, many of us would like to eradicate it like we would garlic mustard.  Its shoots look a bit like asparagus, but not really when you compare them side by side.  To me, knotweed looks like it would grow in Japan; it's got that elegant Eastern look to it.  Especially when it is fully grown with its flower, it looks like it could be outside of a shinto shrine.  This is what the shoots look like in early spring.  They have that bamboo-like quality, conveyed by the nodes with papery sheaths:

The taste is similar to rhubarb, but not as intense and the texture is not as stringy, either.  A friend who hates rhubarb tried my pickled knotweed and to her surprise, really liked it. Just another testament to my motto when it comes to food: work smart not hard.  Here are some links to learn more about this amazing foodstuff:

So far, my favorite way to eat knotweed has been to grill it like asparagus:

Take several spears of knotweed.
Clean them and peel them if the outer skin is too tough.
Marinate them in good olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Grill or broil until slightly charred.

I used them to top off salmon filets.  Under the salmon is wild asparagus, prepared the same way as the knotweed.