Monday, April 15, 2013

PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS - Opuntia spp.





CACTUS – Opuntia spp. (4), Perennial Shrub or Trees (depending on species)
     Family – Cactaceae (Cactus Family)
     Genus – Opuntia (Pricklypear)

Different species of prickly pear cactus have numerous common names, such as Indian Fig, Barbary Fig, Paddle Cactus, Nopal, Nopales, Cochineal Nopal Cactus and Devil’s Tongue.   Don’t let that confuse you because they all look very similar. 

Prickly Pear - Optuntia ficus-indica

Some prickly pear cactus can get as large as small trees such as the Optuntia ficus-indica shown above, but others creep around near the ground.
 
 
A Young Cochineal Nopal Cactus - Opuntia Cochenillifera

Many people in the U.S. do not even know that the prickly pear cactus is edible.  They’re considered a staple in Mexico however and many times you can find them at the grocery store. If you live out west, you see them almost every time you pull out of the driveway along roadsides for mile after mile.  Being a cactus, they do well in states like Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and other dry and arid regions, but who knew that most of the many species will grow right here in the south, and guess what? You do not even have to water them.  Matter of fact, the do quite well without water, so much so that I cut some prickly pear pads almost two months ago and they are still in a bag unplanted, without dirt or moisture and they are still green.  If I planted each of the 30 or so pads I have tomorrow, they’d root and I’d have 30 large cactus plants in just a few years.  Being so easy to grow, resistant to drought, health benefits and the sheer volume of edibility of this particular genus of cactus make it a very important food plant for all.  Even here in the U.S. if you venture into a Mexican ethnic food market, you’re likely to run across prickly pear cactus pads, also commonly called nopales, in the grocery section.
 
 There are at least 68 different species of Opuntia in the U.S. some being more palatable than others.  Now, that’s a lot of cactus.  Many of them will grow right here in the south, but there already are a few growing here that are native to the area.  Some of the native species grow low to the ground, almost creeping along while others get as large as small trees.  Like everything the young ones are best and the older pads get more woody and less palatable with age.


Worldwide, Opuntia Fictus-Indica is one of the more popular edible nopales grown commercially for its fruit and also for the vegetable nopales in Mexico.  I’ve listed some Opuntia and their locations in our area below:

Cochineal Nopal Cactus (Opuntia Cochenillifera) is found in Florida and Hawaii.
 
Devil's-Tongue (Opuntia Austrina)– Found in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

Erect Pricklypear (Opuntia Dillenii) – Found in South Carolina south to Florida.

Barbary Fig (Opuntia Ficus-Indica)– Located from North Carolina south to Florida.

Devil's-Tongue
(Opuntia Humifusa) (2) – Found in all of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada west to New Mexico.  This is one of the most prolific of the eastern U.S. Prickly Pear.                                                                                                                                                    Cockspur Pricklypear (Opuntia Pusilla)– Found in the coastal states of the southeastern U.S. from Texas to North Carolina. Erect Pricklypear (Opuntia Stricta) – The coastal states of the southeastern U.S. from Louisiana to Virginia.

Turban Prickly Pear (Opuntia Turbinata)– Georgia and Florida.

Once "De-Pricked" Prickly Pear can be Handled Without Gloves
 
Picking the Ingredients for a Little Stir-fry

 
 Cooking Opuntia on the Grill
 
 Stir-fry with Peppers, Onions & Conecuh Sausage

 
 Add a Little Rice and You're Ready to Eat!
 

 
 Stir-fry with Chicken and Opuntia on a flour Tortilla Ready to Roll

 
For the Next Meal, Let's cut it up into Squares and Cook with Peas
 
 
 Add Some Cornbread with the Opuntia and Peas and We're Good to Go!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dutch Oven Roast Recipe



Dutch ovens and camp outs can be a lot of fun, and with a little practice, can offer campers some very tasty meals. Back when I used to do a lot of group camping, the dutch oven was a staple for either lunch, supper or both for lunch and supper. It is easy to use requiring very little maintenance except for a little cleaning and light oiling from time to time.

I thought I'd share a recipe and some tips on successful dutch oven cooking for anyone that might be interested. My best tip for you though is to practice cooking with it as often as possible. After burning up a few good meals, you'll learn rather quickly. I'll offer some tips, but experience is the best teacher.

Make sure you have a good quality dutch oven. Cast iron is best and yes, size and thickness matters. Thin dutch ovens could warp with the heat and a good tight "seal" between the top and the body of the dutch oven could be the difference between mediocrity and incredible.  You do not want your water to evaporate from the oven because best case, your food will be dry and worst case, it will burn. As long as there is plenty of water/moisture in the oven, you'll be fine.  Don't forget your oven gloves and maybe some sort of metal hook or long pliers so you can remove your food from the hot coals or remove your lid when required.

You first time trying to cook, you might be tempted to put live burning wood under the oven. Coals under the oven are desirable and allow you to control the temperatures much better. Active fire can burn your food and make it difficult to get even temps around your oven. If you were hanging the oven from a limb or tripod over the fire, it would be easier, but I like the simple hot coal cooking method myself. Hardwood coals are best.. If you're impatient and start your fire right before meal time you will be hungry for an hour or two. Start your fire a couple of hours in advance so that you'll have enough hot coals to do the job properly. Oak makes the longest lasting coals. Pine and other softwoods make coals, but they often burn out too quick only leaving warm ashes behind. Also, make sure your oven is completely "level" because if it is not, the liquids will move to one side and possibly might bubble out.

This recipe is very simple and reasonably priced. Before going camping pick up the following things at the grocery store:

1.      A bag or two of mixed veggies. Personally, I like the broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. They come pre-mixed in a plastic bag so it's very simple to just toss them in the oven.

2.      Grab a few hot peppers. Your choice. I put in 6 once and it was a little too spicy for some tastes so 3 to 4 is a good mix.

3.      Find a good roast, the thicker the better... make sure there's lots of good marbling because it sure makes your Dutch oven roast extra tasty.

4.      Sea salt and ground pepper

5.      Butter is optional

6.       Olive oil to rub on the roast is optional.

 Get the oven HOT... hotter than I show here to properly sear the meat before adding veggies

Now, right before you get your coals spread out evenly the way they should be you need to get the dutch oven very hot because you want to "sear" your roast on both side which will help seal in the juices. I know this is different than what I said before, but a little fire under it at this stage of the game is what you want.  I like to rub the pepper and sea salt all over it and then rub on some olive oil. Once your oven is extremely hot, throw that piece of meat in it and let it stick and smoke like crazy for a couple of minutes, then un-stick it and flip it over to sear the other side.  Try to flip it with tongues and don’t puncture the meat with a knife or fork unless absolutely necessary.  If the pan is hot enough, it will hiss and smoke like crazy.  You know you did it right when it sticks and appears to have a burnt texture just on the surface of the meat.  Congratulations, you’re ready for the next stage.

This is when you take it off the fire and place it onto your coals.  There are several ways you can do this.  You can remove the wood leaving only the coals behind or you can use a shovel or something to move the coals off to the side of the wood.  When everything is ready, add water to about ½” from the top after you throw in your mixed veggies, peppers and enough salt and pepper for your tastes.  Put the lid on afterward, add coals to the top of the lid, then sit back and let it cook. 



Depending on the time of year and type of coals ½” to 1” thick layer of coals on the bottom should be enough.  A thin layer on top helps in my opinion.  Make sure the coals are not too hot.  The problem with having the coals to hot, or your pot un-level or a warped lid which lets your moisture escape is that the water will dissipate leaving nothing but the food which will turn rather quickly into a good hot burnt mess which isn’t fun to clean up on a still hungry stomach.  A good way to make sure your heat is right is by putting your hand near the coals.  If you’ve ever stuck your hand in the oven when the temps up around 350 to 400 degree, then you should have a good feel for the temps you need to cook in your dutch oven as well.  On very cold winter days, it will not hurt it to be a little hotter than; it will actually need to be a little hotter to ward off the cool temps of winter.  Another thing about cooking during the winter is to be wary the coals will cool off quicker than summer time so have more in hand so that you won’t run out.

So, how long to cook?  It just depends on how hot your coals.  The best roast is slow cooked with a thin layer of coals.  If the coals are hotter, you could be looking at 35 to 45 minutes.  If not, maybe up to 1 ½ hour.  Don’t check it often.  You’ll smell it and hear it as it is cooking.  The key is to not let the water boil off.  If you have to, don’t hesitate to add some water, but the roast will be best if the original water makes it to the end.

Good luck and remember that practice makes perfect.  Bring some sandwich meat the first time just in case.

Friday, April 12, 2013

CLOVER, RED AND WHITE – Trifolium repens

CLOVER, RED AND WHITE – Trifolium repens (USDA), Biennial/Perennial Forb/Herb
     Family – Fabaceae (Pea Family)
    Genus – Trifolium (Clover)
 
Sometimes the best things in life are just right under your nose and for whatever reason you miss them.  In the case of White Clover, even the forager of wild plants might sometimes overlook such an important, yet easily attainable plant.  Quite possibly it’s too obvious and abundant to be any good or maybe it’s just too easy and attainable to be worth anything of substance.  Although it is true that this plant is very abundant, easy to find and easily harvested, it is absolutely not true that it does not have value because it has multiple edible uses.
 
White Clover - Trifolium Repens
 
There are 170 species in the Trifolium genus, of which, at least 23 are located right here in the south.  Many of these can be used in similar ways as white clover.  Trifolium in Latin simply means “three” and “leaves” as the plant is often associated with the shamrock which is an important symbol in Ireland.  St. Patrick used the shamrock as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity and white clover, Trifolium Repens, is one of the clovers considered a true shamrock which makes this plant and the tea made from it extra special to me.  The species is introduced from Eurasia many years ago and was a very important plant to the Native Americans.

White Clover, Red Clover and Crimson Clover are all easily recognized from each other when in flower, and when not it is a little more difficult.  The flowering heads of both white and red clover are similar in size and shape, the color being the main difference but Crimson cover below is easily recognized because the inflorescence is much taller than the red or white clovers.  The have smooth, creeping stems, inversely heart-shaped leaflets with long and slender petioles and peduncles.  The flower heads are loose and umbel-shaped.  The leaves of white clover often creep along the ground in thick patches and the white flowers are on separate stalks and sometimes are tinged with pink, especially near the base. They have a pleasant sweet smell. The leaflets sometimes have pale triangular markings.
 
Crimson Clover - Trifolium incarnatum
~Click to Enlarge~
 
As a child I can remember spending what seemed like hours searching for the elusive four leaved clover along the shoulders of roads near my house and I remember finding a few, but not more than that.  Had I been more creative at the time, I’d have dried and framed them, but I didn’t, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
 
Driving down the back country roads and even major highways large patches of both white clover (T. Repens) and red clover (T. Pretense) are easily spotted by their white or red blooms no matter how fast you are going.  Neither of the two are very easily digested raw, but dried or cooked; the leaves and roots have multiple nutritional uses.
 
Although the plant isn’t the greatest when eaten raw, it makes an excellent soothing and relaxing tea.  The flowers can be dried for later use, or used fresh as I have done.  The following recipe created a half pitcher of tea:
 
1 ½ cup of the white flower-heads
8 cups of water
 
Fragrant Flower Heads of Trifolium Repens
~Click to Enlarge~
 
Put the water over heat and add all of the flower heads.  Bring to a boil and cut off the burner and let seep for 5 minutes.  Pour into cup and sweeten to taste by adding either honey or sugar.
Wash the Flower Heads Under Cold Water
~Click to Enlarge~
 
Strain While Heating or dump into the Water
 ~Click to Enlarge~
 

It’s that simple and very worth your time to try this.
 
It is said that the Native Americans even cultivated clover for food.  They ate the plant raw, but also steamed the thin roots or smoked the entire plant over a fire.  Soaking the plant in salty brine for several hours also makes it more palatable.
 
There are multiple other uses for this plant.  The flowers and seeds can be dried and pulverized into flour for making breads or for soup thickeners.   The flowers can also be made into syrup.  The leaves and flowers can be eaten in small quantities raw, or in great quantities cooked or soaked in a brine solution.  The roots can be steamed or cooked and eaten.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

COMMON CHICKWEED– Stellaria media




Family – Caryophyllaceae (Pink Family)
Genus– Stellaria (Starwort)
Synonym - Alsine media

 

CHICKWEED– Stellaria media is a cold weather herb very common here in the southeastern United States in the fall, winter and early spring. It is a perennial plant in colder climates up north, but only a cold weather annual here in the south because it dies back once warm weather hits. It is sometimes said to be one of the best wild salads, having a delicate nutty flavor.  The taste of raw chickweed  reminds me somewhat as having a raw peanut flavor.

Common Chickweed - Stellaria media
~click to enlarge~


There are around 32 species of chickweeds falling under the Stellaria (Starwort) genus but only a few edibles grow in our area. Common Chickweed (S. media) and Star Chickweed (S. pubera) both fall under the Stellaria Genus while Big Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), Sticky Chickweed (Cerastium glomeratum) and Common Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum) are all in the Cerastium (Mouse-eared Chickweed) Genus. The Cerastiums and the Stellaria are kissing cousins, falling in the same Caryophyllaceae (Pin) family as the other chickweeds. There are quite a few other species of Chickweed not discussed here and their edibility needs to be verified with a credible source before eating.
Star Chickweed - Stellaria pubera
~click to enlarge~


The name Stellaria or "stella" is latin meaning star which refers to the shape of the flower of this species. Star Chickweed is our native chickweed and Common Chickweed was introduced from Eurasia.
Common chickweed (S. Media) grows close to the ground with leafy shoots having clusters of white flowers, each with five deeply notched petals which without close inspection sometimes appear to be 10 individual white petals. The leaves are in opposite pairs and ovate and the stems have a single line of hairs running between nodes.
 
Common Chickweed - Stellaria media
~click to enlarge~
 
Common chickweed is located across the entire United States and Canada including Alaska and Hawaii while Star Chickweed's range is limited to the eastern United States, west to Texas, Nebraska and Minnesota from Florida to Vermont. It can be found in both sunny and shady areas with common chickweed more prone to cultivated or disturbed ground, yards, moist or wet areas and fence rows while Star Chickweed is more often found in wooded areas.




 Common Chickweed - Stellaria media
~click to enlarge~


 
Notice the "String" Inside the Stem of Chickweed
~click to enlarge~
 
Historically the Iroquois fed chickweed to the chickens. Interesting that they did that considering it was probably more nutritious than many other plants they were eating. It was used medicinally by the Chipewa as a wash for sore eyes and used by the Iroquois as a poultice applied to cuts, wounds and swellings (Moerman).

Darryl Patton in his book Mountain Medicine tells us that the famous mountain herbalist Tommy Bass drank chickweed tea in his later years after heart surgery to successfully remove the swelling in his ankles. Among other uses, Patton says chickweed can help dull the appetite by lessening the desire to eat, and as a salve, has the ability to heal itchy skin and soothe inflamed tissue. He also says that chickweed is an "
indispensable ingredient" in cough and cold tonics because of its ability to break up congestion acting as an expectorant. It also can be used as a "gentle and efficient cleansing diuretic" for bladder and kidney trouble (Patton).

Chickweed is highly nutritious and prolific garden weed that tastes just as delicious as the very vegetables it competes with in your garden. By far, the more common of the two edible Starworts (Stellaria) here in the southeast actually called common chickweed - Stellaria media. The less common of the two in the area, but the one with the most magnificent flower is Star Chickweed - Stellaria pubera.

It is high in vitamin C, minerals, a fixed oil and some saponin. and the stems and leaves make a great raw addition to salads or it can be cooked as a vegetable only needing a few minutes of boiling or steaming before being ready to eat. Native Americans used the seeds to make bread and thicken soups. The flowering tops can be used as a garnish or eaten raw. Health food enthusiasts mix chickweed leaves with other assorted greens and liquidfy them into what they call a "green drink". It has even been made into a vitamin rich tea.

Making "Green Drink" in a Blender with Water
~click to enlarge~

The Finished Product - "Green Drink"
~click to enlarge~
 
The "other" chickweeds, better known as Mouse Ear Chickweeds of the Cerastium genus, aren't as pleasant looking or tasty as the Stellaria chickweeds are hairy but edible just the same. There are numerous species of Mouse Ear Chickweeds growing in the southeast, both native to our area or introduced from other countries. Fivestamen Chickweed - Cerastium Semidecandrum is one that grows in the southeast but was introduced from Europe and can be cooked and eaten. Field Chickweed - Cerastium arvense, is not as common but also edible.


 
Mouse-ear Chickweed - Cerastium - Similar Flower, but Hairier Leaves & Stems
 ~click to enlarge~
 
As you see above, Mouse-ear Chickweeds have much more hair on the leaves and stems and should definitely be cooked if eaten at all. There is a toxic plant that grows in the south which resembles chickweed called scarlet pimpernel - Anagallis arvensis. Familiarize yourself with this plant as it sometimes grows in the same areas as chickweed and does resemble it until the scarlet colored flowers bloom.   However, Chickweed has round stems and Scarlet Pimpernel has square stems.  Another important note is that chickweeds do not have white sap so if your suspected chickweed has white sap, don't eat it.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sowthistle - Sonchus asper



Spiny Sowthistle - Sonchus asper is by far the most widespread of the Sonchus clan growing across the entire United States including Hawaii and Alaska and all of southern Canada. Of the five or so Sonchus species here in the states, its range is only second to Common Sowthistle - Sonchus Oleraceus whose growth range reaches further into northern Canada and also Greenland.

A Cool Weather Lettuce Like Plant

Spiny Sowthistle is one of at least four edible Sonchus in the southeast, all of which grow here in Alabama and have similar edible qualities about them.

The Yellow Flowers (Partially unopened) of Sowthistle
 
 
This genus' edibility goes way back to the Native Americans in this country even though they are supposedly originally native of Europe with some saying the genus was used for food there for over a thousand years.  Being in the Aster (Asteraceae) Family, sowthistles have edible and inedible relatives ranging from coneflowers to daiseys to cockleburrs.

The Spiny Sowthistle Leaves and Stalk

 
This is the time of year that Spiny Sowthistle likes to grow because it is considered a cool-season annual herb. That being the case, if you run across a sowthistle this time of year it's more likely to be S. Asper than S. Oleraceus which although a more common sowthistle (hence the name Common Sowthistle), it tends to grow more in warmer weather. You'll see them both growing usually in mid to moderate sunlight along roadsides, yards, cultivated areas, gardens etc. It is hard to miss this time of year once the stalk emerges above the dead plants of winter and the bright yellow flowers open up.

Mixed Sonchus Veggies


As the name Spiny Sowthistle suggests, it is probably the spiniest of the sowthistles.  The larger leaves are bitter and also have the sharpest spines, so handle with care.  You can take a pair of scissors and cut off the spines.  They are not an issue if the leaves are young and tender but don't be affraid to include a few of the older leaves as cooking also helps with the bitterness.

Back & Front of the Spiny Sowthistle


Don't confuse the Sowthistles (Sonchus) with the Wild Lettuces (Lactuca) although they both have almost the same edible uses.



Adding Washed Leaves into a Pan with Butter & Oil
 

It is considered high in vitamins according to some sources.  The tender leaves can be eaten raw and actually do resemble lettuce in looks and in taste.  Older leaves can be cooked and made more palatable by removing the spines mechanically or sometimes cooking breaks them down.  The stalks can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like asparagus.  Flowers and flower buds are also edible.  Even the roots can be eaten raw or cooked when young by processing them to remove the fibers.


Notice the White Milky Sap coming out of the Stem


At least one source I’ve read says to clean the milky substance (latex) before eating, but good luck with that because it seems like an impossible task to me.  There are other sources that do not say you have to do that before eating however.  I will mention that the author of that source may have been scared of the white sap because in most cases the white is considered poisonous in other species and typically we stay away from them.  In this case, it isn’t that big of a deal.  If you’re sensitive, then you might be careful and sample in small pieces at first.


Cooking the Sowthistle Down - Add Flour as a Thickener, Salt & Pepper if Desired
 

Personally I tried the peeled stalk and it was a little bitter to me, but I’ve never been a celery type individual.  If it were cooked in a stew or something, I’m sure it would have been just fine, but I tried it raw (without peanut butter).

Meal Ready to Eat
 
 
One last note, it may be preferred to cut the spines off of the Spiny Sowthistle leaves. This takes time I know. The leaves I ate were young, but even cooked, the thistles were noticeable. I didn't say not edible. However, older leaves could cause mechanical injury if the thistles are left on. In simple terms, they could get stuck in your throat, to be cautious with this plant. The "stickers" are not near as noticeable with the other sowthistles.

Bon Appetite