Eating lesser celandine

At the very least I would suggest taking some care about introducing lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) to your garden. Its early growth, glossy leaves, cheery yellow flowers and edible uses all make it attractive, but it has a well-deserved reputation for being invasive in damp or shady areas. In North America, where it is introduced and where several states list it as a noxious invasive speces, the cons almost certainly outweigh the pros. In Europe and North Africa, where it is either native or a long established introduction, the situation is different.

20170418_123557

As its Latin name suggests, F. verna is a plant of the spring. It emerges early, flowers early and dies away again before some other plants have even got out of bed – a classic pattern for woodland floor species adapted to making use of spring sunshine before the trees leaf out and hog the lot. Most plants that do this are bulbs – think wild galic, snowdrops and wild hyacinths (bluebells) – and indeed it might be fair to include lesser celandine in the spring bulbs despite its place in the buttercup family, due to the fleshy little tubers that are the key to both its bulb-like lifestyle and its invasiveness.

Incidentally, the shape of these tubers explains lesser celandine’s other common name: pilewort. Their shape was considered to resemble that of haemorrhoids or piles. Under the ancient ‘doctrine of signatures’, God was held to have marked each species to indicate its use to humans, so this resemblance was considered a sure fire sign that celandine would cure piles.

Ranunculus_ficaria_Roots

Lesser celandine roots. By Christian Hummert (Ixitixel) – Own work, CC BY 2.5

In truth, the doctrine of signatures should probably be placed in the same location as haemmorrhoid cream, but there is no denying the tubers’ use to the plant itself. A handy underground store of nutrients, chock full of toxins, is just the thing needed for an early start to the year. It is also the key to the plant’s persistence, as it is hard to remove all the tubers, and the ease with which it can be accidentally spread around the garden (or the wild). As a result, lesser celandine quickly forms a carpet of growth in favourable conditions.

All this said, there are also reasons why lesser celandine finds it difficult to become a serious pest in any well-managed garden. Despite the seeming ability of the tubers to get everywhere, it doesn’t actually ‘run’, either underground like couch grass or overground like its cousin, creeping buttercup. It’s also a very low growing plant. Its ambition is not to get into the full sun, so it rarely provides serious competition for other plants and it is really quite easy to weed out. It also has an Achilles’ heel, which is that it needs constant moisture to stop the tubers drying out, and it’s never going to be a problem in dry, sunny areas of the garden.

I now let lesser celandine grow in some areas of my garden, where it fills a useful niche as an early spring green – although some caution is required here too! All parts of the plant contain a toxin called protoanemonin, common to the buttercup family. You’ll know if you get protoanemonin in your mouth as it creates an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and throat. Fortunately, protoanemonin is easily broken down by heat or drying so it is easy to get rid of.

fried lesser celandine

Fried lesser celandine

Different sources seem to have different ideas about the amount of protoanemonin in lesser celandine. Miles Irving, the author of ‘The Forager Handbook’ says “Leaves contain protoanemonin, but in minute quantities. Levels are said to increase as the plant comes into flower, but I have eaten plenty of leaves from flowering plants and come to no harm.” and “Leaves are attractive; the flavour quite mild; good bulking for wild salads containing other, stronger flavours.” Perhaps English celandine is different from Scottish, or perhaps Miles is just more tolerant than I am, but I can’t say that this matches my experience. I only use lesser celandine greens cooked, as a pot herb, an ingredient in leaf sauce, in a stir fry (where they keep their succulent texture) or fried in olive oil until they become crispy. Plants for a Future have an interesting note that the flower buds make a good substitute for capers, but I have yet to try this. Whether or not levels of protoanemonin increase with time, I make most use of it early in the season when there are fewer other leaves around. Miles also says that the tubers have a flavour and texture similar to potatoes and can be use boiled or roasted, but my opinion is that life is too short.

Some variations on the regular lesser celandine are available. There is are varieties that do not produce tubers and are therefore much easier to control. I’m not sure, however, how easy this strain is to get hold of and whether or not it will tend to revert to tuberising as it self-seeds – I suspect so. There is also a handsome bronze variety which looks very striking with the bright yellow flowers against dark purple leaves.

Ficaria verna

Bronze Ficaria verna (R), Primula veris (L)

Advertisements

Eating nasturtiums

At this time of year, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are making a splash everywhere, in flower beds, in hanging baskets, in the forest garden – and in the wok and saucepan. Many people will know nasturtiums for their brightly coloured, peppery tasting flowers, but there is a lot more to their culinary use than that.

All parts of the nasturtium – leaves, flowers and seeds – contain the aromatic oil that makes them taste similar to watercress, and all parts can be used in recipes that exploit this flavour. The flowers look spectacular in a salad or as a garnish and the leaves give an interesting twist to pesto. For me though, the biggest attraction is that all this colour and spice mask a less showy but equally useful side to nasturtium, as a very well flavoured green vegetable.

dscf1133

If you cook nasturtium greens, you will be left in no doubt that the aromatic oils are being driven off, as the heady smell fills the kitchen. The surprise is what is left at the end: neither the cress flavour of the raw vegetable nor the bland taste that might be expected, but another taste entirely, distinctive and very pleasant. One way to enjoy this is as a pot herb or spinach. Fry a small onion and some garlic in a pan until soft, then throw in a good quantity of washed nasturtium leaves and a little extra water. Put the lid on and cook for a few minutes. You’ll smell the oil being driven off – once that is over the leaves are ready. The result not only has a nice flavour but also a good texture: soft and buttery. This is very nice as a side dish in its own right, or you could substitute nasturtium leaves for spinach in more complex dishes or mix them together with other leaves.

Another way to use nasturtium is to harvest the soft growing tips, nipping off about 10 centimetres of growth, and use them in a stir fry. I add them near the end: they don’t need a lot of cooking and the ideal is if they keep a little of their cress flavour but not too much.

dscf1142

Nasturtiums are prolific seeders, and this gives another great product: the pickled green seeds. These are often described as caper substitutes, but to my taste they are on a par with capers. Used in similar ways but with a different taste, I’m happy to have both available. There are great preparation instructions on Garden Betty’s blog.

Nasturtiums like a well-drained soil, preferably in full sun. Growing guides tend to say that they do best in poor soil, but it is more accurate to say that they flower best in poor soil. They will grow quite happily in a rich soil, with lots of leaf growth. They are quite rampant and may smother plants that are too close, so give them a bit of space or plant them next to a taller plant that they can scramble up without inconveniencing too much. In my forest garden I have them planted next to some raspberries and also able to cascade over a low wall. The space next to them has wild garlic, which is well over before the nasturtiums really get going. Nasturtiums are annual but they produce lots of seed and often self seed; however, it’s still a good idea to save some seed over the winter so you can plant them where you want them. They can vary in vigour, flavour and size and the tips of some plants are a bit woody, so seed saving gives you a chance to propagate from your best plants.

20160912_181828

Rhubarb chutney – the reboot

I’m always on the lookout for uses for rhubarb as it is such a great perennial vegetable and forest garden crop, so it has always been a bit of a disappointment that I don’t really like traditional rhubarb chutney, which I find over-sweet, over-spiced and a bit cloying. I’ve also never seen the point of adding gallons of vinegar to a recipe and then boiling almost all of it off again. This year, I decided to see if I could reinvent rhubarb chutney, to turn it into something that I would actually want to make and eat – something that would make much better use of forest garden ingredients and rely less on imported dried fruit. Luckily, I seem to have hit the jackpot the very first time round. I love the result and so has everyone I have fed it to so far.

The quantities in this recipe are very approximate and could be varied according to taste. I use about half as much sugar as I do rhubarb, which means that it keeps well while sealed in jars but needs to be kept in the fridge once opened. If you like it sweeter you could add more sugar and get more preservative effect. The spices are ones that appeal to me and that I have available in the garden, but you could vary them according to your own tastes. The key to the recipe is adding pickling vinegar right at the end. The strength of the pickling vinegar means that it doesn’t dilute the chutney too much and the pickle spices (I used Sarson’s white pickling vinegar, which comes already spiced) give a real depth to the flavour.

Ingredients
2 kg rhubarb stems
8 sweet cicely shoots (i.e the young leaves, before they unfurl)
2 lovage shoots
2 alexanders shoots
1 kg sugar
30 g fresh root ginger
approx 150 ml pickling vinegar

Method
1. Cut the rhubarb, sweet cicely and lovage into 1cm lengths, cover with the sugar and leave for a day or two for the sugar to draw all the juice out of the vegetables.
2. Put in a large pan. Chop the ginger finely and add. Cook until it has become thick and ‘jammy’ (takes 30-40 min).
3. Add the pickling vinegar, a bit at a time, until the balance between sweet and sour tastes right to you (it’s hot, obviously, so don’t scald your tongue).
4. Pour into heated, sterilised jars and seal immediately.

And that’s it. I’d love to hear if you try it, what you think of it and any variations that you make. I find it goes equally well in a curry setting, scooped up on papadums, or as a pickle with oatcakes.

 

Eating elm seeds

Every May there is a brief, overwhelmingly abundant forest harvest: the seeds of the wych elm or Ulmus glabra.

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

An elm in seed is a wonderful sight. It begins with tiny, nondescript (but quite beautiful if you look closely) flowers. Being wind-pollinated, they dispense with showy petals and rely on sheer numbers of pollen grains blowing in the wind to find a partner. Over spring they develop into the mature seeds. The seeds are green, leafy and coin sized; they develop before the tree has produced leaves but they are so numerous that a seed-bearing elm looks like it has come into leaf already. This prolific production is the elm’s insurance policy. Where some trees pack their seeds with toxins to deter seed-eating animals, the elm’s strategy is to produce as many seeds as possible as quickly as possible so that no predator can have a hope of taking more than a fraction.

20160521_154455

a curtain of elm seeds

The maturing fruit goes through several stages. It starts very much like a leaf, but as it grows the seed in the centre begins to develop and the whole thing develops a succulent oiliness. Beyond this stage, they turn dry, brittle and brown and blow off the tree. Around seeding elms there is a premature autumn at the end of spring as little drifts of the seeds carpet the ground like fallen leaves.

A human wishing to eat elm seeds faces the same problem as any other seed-eater – the sheer overwhelming number and the far-too-brief period when they are in the sweet spot of oily edibility. It’s hard not to fall prey to foraging greed, but I’ve learned to be sanguine about the fact that most of this bounty will dry up and blow away and just to enjoy a fraction of it while it lasts. The best use of elm seeds is in a salad where, as one source puts it, they will leave ‘the mouth feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant’. Cooking them is harder: one of the best uses I have found so far is as a component, along with wild garlic, nettles, kale and other spring greens, of ‘leaf sauce curry’ (about which I’ll post soon). This is a dish that lends itself well to being cooked in huge vats and frozen in portions, which helps to preserve the bounty a little.

20160521_154306

Of course, I am lucky to have elm seeds at all. Many elms worldwide have been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. In the north of Scotland we are quite fortunate. Our native wych elms are more diverse and resistant than the English elm (Ulmus procera) and the cold, windy climate makes it harder for the bark beetles that spread the fungus to get around. As a result the spread of the disease has been slower and we still have many fine trees.

In other areas, all is not necessarily lost for the elm. There are now various projects to breed or discover elms with some degree of resistance to the disease. Some are based on attempts to shuffle the genetic pack by hybridising different elm species. While this can be effective it does have the downside that the results cannot be called native in any area and, ironically, one of the leading cultivars has been suspected of increasing the spread of a different elm disease. The Conservation Foundation supplies clones of native (UK) elms that have shown some signs of resistance and I have planted several round my local area. Finally, there is a chance that resistance might emerge more organically from wild trees in areas like northern Scotland where transmission rates are lower and death rates less catastrophic. If you want to give the elm a helping hand by finding a home for some resistant varieties, I’m sure they would be happy to repay you by supplying some seeds to fill your stomach and freshen your breath.

too late

too late

Broad bean hummus

The wavefront of wild garlic emergence, crashing northward through the country, has finally hit Aberdeen, trailing Spring in its wake. In celebration, I picked half a dozen leaves to make a bioregional dish I call Green Hummus.

The main ingredient of this is not actually ḥummuṣ (chickpeas) at all, but another pulse that grows far better in my Scottish garden: broad beans (Vicia faba). I used a heritage variety called ‘Crimson Flowered’ which makes a particularly green bean (a quality which completely fails to come out in the photo below) as well as a very attractive plant. I soak them for a few days then give them just 3 minutes at full boil in a pressure cooker. The complete ingredient list is:

200g (7 oz) cooked broad beans
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp water
lemon juice to taste
salt to taste
6 or more wild garlic leaves

green hummus ingredients

Preparation is simple: just blend all the ingredients together to a smooth texture. You are trying to make an emulsion, so if the mixture is still grainy, add a little bit more water.

As a quick glance at any supermarket shelf will tell you, you can mess about more or less endlessly with the basic formula. You could add some tahini to bring it closer to the traditional hummus bi tahina. You could make it more local by using rapeseed or hemp oil instead of the olive oil. You could add some of the other herbs available in the forest garden at this time of year, such as parsley, celery leaf, land cress, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), various onions, wasabi leaf, alexanders, hedge garlic or sorrel. Indeed, you could add anchovies, olives, coriander or a deep-fried Mars Bar, but I think that the plain version can’t be beaten.

Don’t expect green hummus to taste like the chickpea paste, but do expect it to have a wonderful flavour all of its own. A fertile Spring to all of you.

Eating hogweed

Talk about giving a plant a bad name! The hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in my garden is neither a weed nor for the hogs: it is a valued vegetable. It does need to be handled with some care though.

Hogweed has some pretty knowledgeable fans. Roger Phillips, author of Wild Food, describes it as ‘Unequivocally one of the best vegetables I have eaten.” while Margaret Lear of Plants with Purpose, writing in A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, calls it “an epicurean vegetable for the hungry gap”.

Like many other members of the carrot family, the best part of hogweed is the young leaf shoot, picked before the leaves have properly unfurled. The tastiest way of eating them is to sauté them in butter until they develop a melting texture and a slightly caramelised taste. Achieving this can take some practice though. Undercooked hogweed is not at all nice and might be dangerous. I find that it requires some moisture to cook right through, so wash the shoots before cooking and use without drying, and add a little more water later on if required. The exact cooking time is around 10 minutes, but varies with the size of the shoots. Larger shoots take longer to cook and it can be a good idea to cook them first, adding in smaller ones later. A variation is to add a little stock after frying, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes to braise them.

hogweed shoots

hogweed shoots

One of my favourite uses of hogweed is to make soup. I slice up the shoots to 1 cm lengths and cook for 10 minutes in some stock along with some wild garlic leaves, then use a hand blender to blend it to a smooth consistency. The result is very creamy, with a delicate but distinctive flavour. Apart from this, it is a useful vegetable in any recipe where it will be cooked through, such as stews, curries or pasta sauce. I have also found it very tasty cooked with other shoots in tempura.

Hogweed leaf stems are covered in tiny hairs which I usually prefer to rub off before cooking. As they get older they get stringier and it can be worth peeling larger shoots. They store well in the fridge for a few days: in my experience they store much better if dry, so best to leave cleaning them until you are ready to use them (but see the note below). If blanched in hot water for a couple of minutes they will freeze well for later use.

Other parts of hogweed that can be used include the immature flower heads, which come neatly wrapped in papery bracts, and the seeds. The flower heads are best while still inside the bract although they remain edible until the flowers themselves open. The dried seeds have a wonderful citrusy aroma which makes an excellent addition to a spice mix. Even more exotic uses of hogweed have been reported: the Plants for a Future website says that the leaf stems are tied in bundles and dried in the sun until a sweet substance resembling sugar forms on them. Professional forager Miles Irving reports that the original borscht, now a pickled beetroot soup, was made from lacto-fermented hogweed leaves.

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

However, before you go rushing out to the hedgerows and roadsides where hogweed likes to grow I need to sound several notes of caution. Hogweed can be dangerous: the risks come both from the possibility of confusing it with other species and from hazards that are present even if you have the right plant.

The most obvious danger with hogweed comes from confusing it with its close relative giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzeniga), which can cause disabling burns from contact with its sap. It is also has a superficial resemblance to several other members of the carrot family, some of which are distinctly poisonous. If you are going to try to eat hogweed, make sure that you can positively identify it using a guide which is comprehensive enough to distinguish it from all the possible lookalikes in your area. In particular, get to know what young giant hogweed looks like and how to tell it apart from normal hogweed. If you aren’t sure, don’t put it in your mouth (in fact be careful about even touching it)! That said, hogweed is quite distinctive once you get to know it.

If that weren’t enough, even when you do have the genuine article hogweed can be harmful due to toxins called furanocoumarins found in its sap. These can cause milder but still quite nasty versions of the burns caused by giant hogweed. I know this from painful personal experience after getting some of its sap on my arm while strimming in hot, sunny weather (we aren’t cursed with such weather too often in Aberdeen, so I wasn’t aware of the risk at the time). The affected area formed a wound that took months to get better since every time it healed and the scab came off the new skin underneath was damaged again.

As bad as this sounds, a little care is enough to avoid getting the sap on your skin in strong sunlight and I have never had any problems while handling it for food preparation. I always make sure to wash my hands immediately after cutting it up but that is all. Furanocoumarins are also found in more usual vegetables such as celery, parsnips and citrus fruits like grapefruit. In grapefruit they are famous for inhibiting the action of certain drugs, so it is quite possible that this might also be true with hogweed. Furanocoumarin levels are generally increased by damage and during storage, so it may be sensible to use your hogweed fresh and trim off the ends of the shoots. Quite how much furanocoumarin is in British hogweed is uncertain. Plants for a Future suggest that the sub-species sphondylium and sibirica (the only two listed on the Euro+Med plant database as being present in Britain) are not phototoxic but I would be sceptical about that.

Given that hogweed must be one of our most common wild plants, why might you want to grow it? I have some in my garden so that I can always be sure of finding some whenever I need. I can also extend the season as hogweed resprouts through most of the year if it is cut down. Otherwise the edible shoots are mostly over by the end of June. It is a woodland edge species, enjoying a rich soil and a little shelter but not growing in deep shade. If growing it in your garden it is advisable to remove the seed heads as it can self seed quite freely.

All in all, hogweed may require some care but I would rather get to know the dangers of plants and then use them safely than live in ignorance and fear of them. The reward is the distinctive taste of a vegetable that well deserves the praise heaped upon it by wild food enthusiasts.

Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. It is the young shoots that are eaten, so this means that it is also very productive.

Udo is one of the Japanese sansai (the WordPress spellchecker keeps trying to turn this into sensei  – it must have been watching too much Mutant Ninja Turtles) – or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.

Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes since my own plant is still establishing and I don’t want to eat too much of it until it is ready. Fortunately Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.

Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.

Aralia cordata shoot

As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold as an ornamental. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.

Aralia cordata flower

Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63GLJ6OS9)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

Aralia cordata fruit

Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63EWlX3Nc)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.