Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pine Nut Insanity

Joanna foraging for pine nuts.
“Now I understand why they're so expensive!” said Joanna, after painstakingly cracking the outer shell of a roasted pine nut, only to find it yet again empty.

We had peeled approximately 50 pine nuts, and how many did we have to show for it? Seven. I yelped in shock when I found my first nut, sweet creamy white after piles of empty or rotten ones.  How did we get to this stage?  Rewind 5 days. 

The Harvest

According to herbalist and ethnobotanist Tellur Fennur of Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic, who I consulted on pine nut collection and processing, the three pines most commonly harvested for pine nuts in our area are the Gray or Ghost Pine (Pinus sabiniana), the Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri) and the Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). They are not common in urban areas, however, and are mostly found towards the east, especially near Mount Diablo.  The most common pine in our area is the Monterey Pine, (P. radiata).  We noticed that it was producing pine nuts, so even though it's not noted as a species commonly harvested for its nuts, we decided to try it.  That was probably our first mistake.

 Joanna, Rebecca and I headed off with a borrowed fruit picker and directions to a parking lot edged with Monterey pines.  We were told to look for pine cones that had just started to open; if they were too open, the squirrels and insects would be there ahead of us and the nuts would be gone.  Another common way to harvest them is when they're fully developed but still green and unopened, so we picked a few cones at that stage, too.

That was easier said than done. From the ground, it was hard to tell the exact stage of the pine cone nestled among all those needles.  The fruit picker was not exactly made for these cones either.  In the end, we figured out that the other end of the fruit picker – the blunt bamboo pole – was more suited for pine nut collection. The cones just needed to be knocked out of the branches, not grabbed.

We were collecting while standing on the sidewalk next to the lot, since all fruit or nuts overhanging sidewalks and public thoroughfares is legal to collect in Berkeley and Oakland. People passed us in business clothing, just finishing their evening commute. Most looked at us like we were insane, although some were curious and encouraging.  We collected about two five-gallon buckets worth of pine cones, and headed back to the house.

Rebecca, Wendy and Joanna concentrating on cracking the cones open.
Seated around a sunlit kitchen table, we donned garden gloves and started prying apart the cones.  It was no joke.  These were big suckers, with sharp, pointy edges.  The pine nuts are wedged between the hard brown talons of the pine cones.  We'd made a tidy pile by the time we called it a day. 

Five days later

We now had a small bowl full of pine nuts encased in a hard outer casing.  Wendy tried to use her metal nut cracker on them and broke it. We decided to try roasting them.

If you try this, use medium-low heat and watch it carefully (although I'm not recommending trying any of this because it was utterly ridiculous).  I mention the heat because Wendy had previously tried roasting a pan full, then gotten distracted until she started hearing explosions and being pelted by tiny pieces of pine nut shrapnel.  This time, we carefully shook the cast iron pan, roasting them evenly until cracks formed in the shells.

After removing the nuts from the heat, we went at them, forcing small paring knives into the cracks to pry the nut apart.  It worked well, and a mountain of empty shells started to form.  The problem was that very few of them contained actual nuts.

I'm still not sure if we were too early, too late, or if it was just an off year for the trees. Probably most of the cones we picked were past their peak, and although the outer shell looked sealed, insects had already gotten to them. Or, since it was planted as an ornamental, some of the trees could have been sterile.

Betsy, surprised, as one goes flying.
 We ended up collecting seven, as I mentioned. Yes, seven.  But we weren't dejected or upset, surprisingly. On the contrary.  The entire process was so satisfying, the company so fulfilling, that the pine nuts themselves were secondary. Those seven sat on the butcher block, no one seemingly tempted to touch them – they were sacrosanct.  As we were about to leave, we gathered around the table, grasped one pine nut each, toasted each other and downed them.  It was quite seriously the best pine nut I've ever eaten.

Worth it?  You be the judge.
P.S. We tried roasting the green cones, but no luck yet.  We are hanging them in a burlap bag in the sun for a while to see if they open that way. I'll post an update when we find out!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rose Hips and Feijoa, or ornamentals with a surprise

I'm on a quest. 

I want to forage and eat at least one thing every week for a year.  I live in the flatlands – so yes, there's a lot of concrete here.  But there's also an amazing amount of fruit, wild greens, artichokes, nuts, and cacti. It's just a perspective change to have it pop out at you. 

I hear people talk about how disconnected from nature they feel living in the city, but foraging is a great way to connect with the seasons right here.  At the same time, you're eating locally, and saving money.

The Bay Area growing season is amazing – crops ripen throughout the year, so there's always something to pick.  You don't need an off-the-hook garden; the key is to shift your vision so that you see it all around you.

I've been amused recently to realize that some of the ornamental plants people use in their yards actually produce edible parts, most of which go to waste.

I can eat my rose?

Roses are a great example.  This is the time of year when the withered blooms give way to a bright red seed pod – a rose hip.  Roses are in the same family as the apple, and they look a little like tiny apples. Be sure that the roses haven't been treated with any nasty fungicides or pesticides, and they are otherwise edible. They're high in Vitamin C. 

I had big plans to make rose hip jelly, and I still will someday, but for these rose hips I decided to simply dehydrate them and use them in teas. For fresh rose hip tea, steep 4-8 hips in a cup of boiling water for about 10 - 15 minutes.   With dehydrated rose hips, you need 2-4 hips.  It makes a tangy, tart tea with a pink tinge.

The Feijoa, my new favorite fruit

Just down the block from my house, a friend clued me in to a whole hedge made of Feijoa or Pineapple Guava (Acca sellowiana), which is native to South America (Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay).  People describe the taste as a cross between a pineapple, strawberry and guava, but I think it tastes like an all- natural version of sour gummy worms!  I know that sounds disgusting, but trust me, it's amazing.  It's this complex flavor with intense sweetness and sourness mixed together, coming at you in layers.  If you can get your hands on these, do it. 

The owner planted them for their beautiful flowers and grey green leaves, and probably the fact that they grow well with almost no care here.  He doesn't want the fruit, so they're all up for grabs. 

Feijoas ripen slowly over time, so you can't just harvest the whole bush at once.  You also have to wait for them to fall off – if you pick them from the bush before they are ripe, they won't achieve the same flavor.  I have seen references to peeling feijoas, but that seems wholly unnecessary to me. The peel is thin and inoffensive, and I've been happily eating them whole.

I rode my bike past the bush this morning, and realized that I hadn't harvested it in a while. There were a bunch on the ground, but I was stopped by my lack of a collecting bag.  However, I did have an extra pair of pants with me, so I just tied a knot at the end of one leg and went to town.  Purdue's horticultural department reports that they are high in pectin, so I plan to make jelly with them eventually.  However, I'm almost certain that this round of feijoas will disappear before I have that chance.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Wild Artichokes - Weed to Dinner Table

I love foraging invasive species.

Non-native plants come with much less pressure to figure out whether you're sustainably harvesting the plants and maintaining a viable population.  For the invasives, you actively don't want to maintain a viable population. You can go bananas.

A great example of a tasty invasive species is the thistle or cardoon, Cynara cardunculus,  a wild relative of the artichoke.  This is a gorgeous, architectural plant that looks as if it's arrayed for battle in some futuristic universe – it's covered with grey-green spikes, and topped with a showy electric blue flower.

Almost every part of this plant is edible, so it needs the protection its spikes provide. I am told that the inner stems are like tender stalks of celery, but I was more focused on the unopened flower buds – which are very similar to artichokes with the addition of mean-looking thorns on the tip of each leaf.

You have to catch these early, before they've started to turn into flowers.  Cut them off at the base of the bud.  You may want to wear gloves, but honestly the thorns are easy to avoid if you just grip the stem.

You can steam them just like artichokes.  They're smaller than commercial artichokes, but there are so many of these around in marginal spaces – open fields, by the sides of roads, in empty lots – that it's easy to gather enough for a nice appetizer.  I would not recommend harvesting these artichokes from post-industrial lots or spaces which might have contaminated soil, because heavy metals can be taken up into the leaves of plants. 

My wild artichokes were harvested from an open field outside of the city, so I wasn't worried. We served them with a melted butter & garlic dipping sauce, and I was impressed. They were actually sweeter than the commercial artichokes I've had recently, and although much smaller, I was surprised by the amount of edible tender meat. 

Many thanks to Feral Kevin for teaching me about these delicious plants!  If you want to learn more about foraging, I recommend his foraging walks, which happen almost every weekend.  Here's a video he made about collecting and cooking wild artichokes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Jam for the Arts! Canning Workshop October 20th

I'm really excited to announce a fundraiser I'll be holding soon - Jam for the Arts!  I'll be teaching a canning workshop, and all proceeds will go to support music education in Oakland Public Schools.
Canning Workshop - Jam for the Arts!
Wednesday, October 20th 7-10pm
Sliding scale $35-70, plus $10 supply fee
Location: N. Oakland, address supplied upon registration
Fundraiser - all proceeds benefit Oakland Youth Chorus

People can for environmental reasons, to eat locally, reconnect with family recipes, preserve their garden's abundance, be self-sufficient, save money, or just because it tastes better!  If you are motivated to can but aren't sure where to start, this is the class for you.

What's the difference between preserves, compotes, fruit butters, jams & jellies? Should you use a water bath or pressure canner?  How do you can safely? This hands-on workshop will answer these questions and more. You will leave with several jars of homemade preserves (apples and quince are the planned ingredients, subject to availability), a sheaf of recipes, and the skills and confidence to do it yourself next time.
Contact for more information.  As of this posting, only 5 spots were left. All proceeds benefit OYC.

Jam for the Arts is co-sponsored by Oakland Local.