Summer, in the Shade
August 27, 2012
As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.
A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)
Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.
We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).
Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.
Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.
In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.
A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.