Foraging for “Wild Asparagus”

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This eternal spring has brought a lot of green our way. Lots of plants are happy with the extra moisture and are sending up flowers, but before many do there is a cool vegetable that can be had at the right time. I am not actually talking about the wild asparagus, but a host of many other plants that send up a flower stalk and can be treated in the same way as asparagus. They all must pass the “snap test” in which the stalk breaks free and is easy to snap off.

Some common plants include:

Wild Carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), best at 6 to 20” tall and as fat and succulent as possible. Just hand peel the hairy skin and leaves off and cook like you would asparagus

All Thistles (Cirsium species) are edible. They are related to artichokes. The pre-flowering stalk tastes like celery when raw. You may need to peel or chop them up before steaming.

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) best gathered when still young and tender, they can get really big so try the snap test to get the best part of the stalk, then peel the fibrous astringent part off and cook like asparagus.

Salisfy (Tragopogon species) shoot is said to be an excellent vegetable according to Samuel Thayer, but I have not tried it yet. He says to gather the young flowering stalk (4-16”) from the base with the tender leaves still on and steam like asparagus.

Sow thistles (Sonchus oleraceus) are another excellent steamed vegetable if gathered at the correct stage. You are looking for a fat short stalk with no flowers open. The buds are ok too. Cut at base and do not worry about the milky latex. Peel away all but the last few leaves, chop up and sauté with other veggies.

Don’t spray it, sauté it! Eat your weeds!

-Matt

Pressing Acorns into Oil

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Pressing Acorn Oil

Pressing Acorn Oil

Matt has been dreaming and scheming about making acorn oil for the last several years. The oil is used traditionally in Spain and Morocco, and he was curious what kind of oil we could get from our local oak varieties. He finally bought an oil press this winter, determined to see what we can draw from our local and abundant acorn supply. His first run with this hand-press did not work so well, so he invited his Buckeye friend Stephen to come over and share his oil pressing experience.

The hand press definitely requires some finesse! But once Stephen and Matt got it going, a scrumptious roasted nut smell filled the air and beautiful golden oil became dripping out. The first batch was made with Canyon Oak acorn (moderate in tannins). I tasted a few drops and it was like golden nutty melted butter! It was hard to taste it without making some noise about how yummy it was.

As I type, Steven and Matt are continuing to press acorn oil using a few different acorn varieties, Tan Oak and Black Oak. They comment on each flavor as if they were in Napa tasting wine. They also chat about the nature of the world, and every now and then interject with a “now we got it!” or “here we go!” or “that is SWEET” when the oil comes dripping out in a nice flow. They talk about the ease in which we go to the store and buy a large container of cooking oil, and what would happen if for some reason that supply was no longer available to us so abundantly.

Stephen & Matt

Stephen & Matt

The Tan Oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) is said to have the most oil (30%), but also has high tannins. Tannins or tannic acid is present in our diets in small amounts (that slight pucker you may get from eating walnuts, cranberries or pomegranates) but in acorns it is so high that you must leach it out. Luckily tannins are water-soluble and the leaching process will produce nut meats without the bitterness. Tannins are nature’s preservatives and the acorns with high amounts can be stored for a longer period and most plants and trees have them to help protect them from insects, fire and bacteria.

Knowing that Canyon oak has moderate tannins we decided to not leach the acorn before pressing the oil out and to our luck they did not taste bitter! The Tan Oak however did have some bitterness to it. So we added water to the oil and decanted it off, hopefully “leaching” the tannins away—It worked somewhat – more experiments are needed.

I must admit, it sure is handy going to the store (or someplace like Chaffin Farms) to buy a large bottle of oil to use generously for every meal. Matt and Steven have been working at this oil pressing for several hours today and we have about 4 ounces of oil to show for it. Sure, some of this time was experimentation with trial and error, but you get my point about the time involved to press this precious oil by hand!

But I must say…. taking an afternoon to explore the treasures of our local food shed and build community around processing food is like nothing you can buy at the store. And the deep appreciation we have for every drop of that precious oil is nothing we could have experienced had we purchased it from someone else. And this is amazing acorn oil! It is made from the essence of our bioregion, rich in nutrients and indigenous to this land.

We have much more experimentation to do to on the processing of acorn oil, but we are excited to have begun the process!