mallow

Edible Plants

Wild Huckleberries: Natures tart-sweet treasure

Todays guest post is from my all time favorite favorite foraging book, The Flavors of Home. This amazing book, written by Margit-Roos Collins, is my go to on foraging for wild edibles in The Bay, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about what nature has to offer in our area (I like it so much I even wrote the forward for the new edition!). Check out her post below and make sure to click the link at the bottom to get a copy of your own with a special discount.

Happy foraging!
Iso Rabins
Founder: forageSF

Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

Just thinking of huckleberries is relaxing. They are a dependable, democratic berry. Their flavor pleases most people, and enough berries grow here to supply every piemaker who's willing to harvest them.

Huckleberry shrubs grow 3 to 7 feet tall and have small, stiff, shiny leaves that stay dark green the year round. The blossoms are pale pink or white and bell shaped, and the berries turn blue-black when ripe. Basically, they look like blueberries, only smaller, shinier, and darker. Sometimes they are covered with a white bloom that makes them look light blue.

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What tranquil afternoons I have spent at Point Reyes, absorbed in the pleasant tedium of trying to fill a bag with those tiny, dark berries. Except when we compare sacks to see who's ahead, my husband and I are each on our own in the shrubbery, listening to bird calls and letting our thoughts run free. I love to look up and see the ocean sparkling in the distance; thoughts of its long horizons and expansive beaches balance the forest's myriad close-up details. The sunlight makes the grasses shine in the hidden meadow where we eat our lunch. Every breeze finds a voice as it passes through the fir branches high overhead.

Sooner or later, one of us gets bored and is ready to move on. With luck it hits us at the same time, so that neither has to feel like the martyred nature lover. An hour or two of picking is all we need to recapture what we came for. Which is what? Basically, it is time spent outdoors without an agenda -- who cares how many berries we pick? Without deep conversation, or small talk, or any real interaction with another human bundle of desires and demands. Without a certain mileage to be covered, or a need to match paces, or a plant or animal to be found and observed. And because picking the berries is an accomplishment, no matter how small, it frees me from the feeling that I need to make the time count by thinking about something important or making plans. When I pick huckleberries, 1 just exist, like a kid floating through summer vacation.

Maybe you find berry picking fun, or even tedious, but not a transcendent experience. No matter. At least you come home with a bag of berries -- extremely valuable berries, considering the time you have invested in harvesting them -- and now you want to make something delicious with them.

First, you need to pull off any green stems that are still attached. Then put the berries in a pot of water. Swish them around and bits of stem or leaf will float to the top along with the tiny, green berries. Strain those off and then pick out any red, unripe berries. Cleaning and sorting them can be a tiresome chore; do it in good company, if possible.

Any blueberry recipe can be used for huckleberries, except that you will need to add more sugar to get the same effect because huckleberries are more tart. You may find the taste of pure huckleberry desserts slightly thin: sweet and sour but without any depth. My appreciation for the berries increased dramatically when I began cooking them with other fruits. The recipes for fruit pie and dessert sauce are two that we have enjoyed.

I used to work for a lawyer named Barbara Phillips. One night, she invited my husband and me over for dinner, and we brought huckleberries as our contribution to the meal. For dessert, I began making a simple, straightforward sauce with them, to go over her homemade yogurt. Barbara tasted it, her mind started ticking, and soon she had transformed it into something far more subtle and exciting. I have regarded huckleberries -- and fruit sauces -- with a new appreciation after that night.

Huckleberry Dessert Sauce Extraordinaire

• 1 cup huckleberries

• 1 lemon

• sugar or honey

• Cointreau

• cornstarch

Put aside 1/3 of the huckleberries. Put the other 2/3 in a saucepan, crush them with the bottom of a jar or other blunt object, and add barely enough water to cover them. Cook, stirring, over low heat, adding sugar or honey to taste. Add cornstarch, dissolved in a little water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce reaches the thickness you desire. After each tablespoon, stir for a few minutes to see what effect it has on the thickness, before adding more.

When the texture is right, add the uncrushed berries. Remove the peel and white rind from a lemon and cut the pulp into small pieces, adding them to the sauce. You'd think that extra tartness would be the last thing huckleberries needed, but the lemon is a tremendous addition.

Finally, stir in some spoonfuls of Cointreau to taste. This orange-flavored liqueur adds warmth, depth, and interest to the sauce, transforming it remarkably. The wild and civilized flavors bring out the best in each other. Bon appetite!

Triple Fruit Pie

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• pie crust

• 1½ lemons

• 1 pippin or other tart apple

• a cup or so of huckleberries

• 1½ cups of Concord grapes

• 1/3 to ½ cup sugar

• cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Line a pie pan with any type of crust. Cut the apple into thin slices and cover the bottom of the pie crust with them. Slip the skins off the grapes and reserve the skins. Cook the grape pulp for a minute or two to soften it, and put it through a sieve to remove the seeds. Dissolve 3 tablespoons cornstarch in the juice of ½ lemon plus a little water, if necessary. Mix together the huckleberries, the grape pulp and skins, the cornstarch and lemon, and the sugar -- I like tart foods and use only 1/3 cup; using 1/3 cup produces a normal, sweet pie. Pour the mixture over the apple slices.

Bake the pie at 450° F. for 10 minutes, and then bake it at 350° for another 40 to 45 minutes. The grapes contribute sweetness and rich flavor, the apple adds body and texture, and the little huckleberries give a contrasting texture and their own tartness. Other wonderful combinations are huckleberries with peaches or mangos.

Where and When to Find Them

Marin and the Peninsula are the places to go for huckleberries; they are a coastal species. The best-bearing plants are usually on ridges or hillsides. For example, at one park I noticed disappointingly few berries on the shrubs down along a stream, but only a quarter of a mile up the trail, on the ridge, the berries were numerous.

Because they are so abundant, huckleberries are unusually dependable. No matter what the weather, you can count on finding some. But the quantity and quality of berries varies a lot from year to year. After the extraordinarily wet winter of 1981-1982, for example, they were more grainy and sour than usual, and the small crop was mostly gone by August. In other years, equally unusual, you'll find enough berries in late November to make pies for Thanksgiving. In a typical year, the shrubs bloom from February through June. The first ripe berries appear in mid-July, but the great huckleberry months are August, September, and October. The heavy coastal fogs of June and July have broken up by then, and you can usually count on sunny weather for your huckleberrying expedition. If you live in the fog zone, there's nothing like a September afternoon spent berry picking to make summer seem real again, and not just a sweet memory from other places and other times.

 

Link for purchase: https://aerbook.com/maker/productcard-2614623-4706.html

Edible Plants

Mallow: you've gotta try any plant that has a "cheese wheel"

Todays guest post is from Kevin Feinstein (the leader of our wild food walks), and Mia Adler’s book The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area. Check at the bottom of the post for a purchase link to their great guide to all things wild and edible!

Common Mallow, Malva (Malva neglecta)

Family:  Malvaceae (okra, hisbiscus, kenaf, marsh mallow)

Eurasian Weed

 

Many readers might have actually eaten this plant before and didn’t know it. The young leaves are often found in good salad mixes that you get at the farmer’s market and even sometimes in stores like Whole Foods, albeit in small (perhaps accidental) amounts. This plant is also called malva, and it is in the Malvaceae family. Okra is also in this family. I ask people in my walks, “what is the first thing you think of when you think of okra?” and 99% of the time I get the response, “slimy,” which is what I’m fishing for, of course.   Mallow is also slimy, or mucilagenous (see below).   It is also in the same family as hibiscus (indeed, mallow flowers look like tiny, weedy, pinkish-purple hibiscus flowers).   Mallow is closely related to another plant, the marsh mallow -- yes, the same plant that marshmallows used to be made from (now they are just chemicals and sugar).    It is also related to kenaf, a plant used commercially and traditionally to make fibers and fabrics. 

 

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What does it look like?  Herbaceous perennial, whose mature stalks once gone to seed, typically die back to the ground.   It’s a tough and common weed with a very deep and penetrating taproot, as gardeners will attest to.  The leaves are a bit course and crinkly, with a geranium-like look.   They have no real scent when crushed.  The texture is somewhat unique.   The flowers are small and purple-pink, resembling tiny hibiscus flowers or okra flowers as noted above.   The plant then forms seedpods, that resemble little cheesewheels (especially when green.)   Many of the kids I teach have called this plant the cheesewheel plant as the immature seedpods, or cheesewheels, are perhaps the most tasty and interesting part of the mallow plant.  

 

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 When is it available?  Depending on the microclimate, edible parts of the plant can be available all year.   In warmer, drier climates (think away from the coast), the leaves are good in fall, winter, and early spring (the rainy season.)   The immature pods or cheesewheels, typically April-June.     In cooler, moister microclimates (think near the coast), leaves might be available all year, especially if grazed or weedwacked, and the mallow “cheesewheels” May-September.  

 

Where can I find it?    Disturbed areas:  gardens, fields, parks, grassy hills, forest edges (but usually near people). It is a garden and agricultural weed.    Very common in the Bay Area, you’ll even see it on trails as it regrows from disturbances such as weed whacking or trampling.   Although I don’t recommend eating trampled mallow!   I usually don’t see it in more remote wilderness areas.  


How to use/forage:     Young and medium age leaves are fine to eat in a salad, although they have an interesting texture and not much flavor by themselves.  Old leaves aren’t recommended (because of texture and flavor).   You can cook mallow leaves as a potherb as well.  What I recommend is drying the leaves, crumbling them into a powder, and adding this to soups or smoothies, or gumbo-like dishes.  They will thicken the dish, as they are mucilaginous.   The immature seedpods (cheesewheels) are great snacks raw and delicious like okra if sauteed. 

 

Sustainability:  Considered to be an invasive or noxious weed by many, a very tough and abundant plant.  So I say, go for it.   If you want/need more, let some go to seed, and cut and come again with the leaves.   Mallow is a plant that in some places, such as small farms and gardens, is discarded as a weed.    By eating it rather than it going in the compost, I feel that it is a way of honoring the plant.   If you want to eat this plant and don’t have access to safe local mallow foraging, ask your organic farmers at the market; they’ll know it and might be willing to provide it.  

 

Recipes:  Mallow miso soup.    Mallow behaves a lot like seaweed in a recipe.  So take the miner’s miso recipe (found in the chapter on miner’s lettuce) and replace the seaweed with dried and ground mallow leaves.  

 

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Bonus Box: Here’s the scoop I give my wild food walkers:  The leaves don’t taste like much of anything.  You can detect a bit of sliminess; it’s not bad, but it’s not really good either. I don’t particularly enjoy just grazing on mallow leaves.  But mix a few in a salad with other succulent greens (such as miner’s lettuce or chickweed) with a good dressing, sure. I could even go as far as 1/4 of my salad greens being mallow, maybe.    So why bother with the leaves?   Mainly because they are super nutritious!   Loads of plant-based precursors to vitamin A, minerals, and other phytonutrients.  Containing this mucilage, the slimy part, it’s a great anti-inflammatory and has many soothing medicinal properties.   Another use of the slimy property, one a chef might argue as being the main reason for eating mallow leaves: they help thicken dishes.  

 

Bonus Box 2:   What Kevin does with mallow.   My favorite thing to do with mallow is cut off a whole plant (it’ll most likely grow back with healthier growth) or pluck one from your garden.  Remember this is a common garden weed.    I then dry the whole plant (it dries really amazingly well).  This the lazy forager’s way:  Get the whole plant and lay it on the counter at home, then in a few days it’s dry.   I’ll then hold the plant over a large bowl or paper grocery bag and with a few quick strokes I’ll partially crush (they are surprisingly brittle) as I strip the leaves off the stalk, removing any yellow, brown or bad looking leaves first.    I then put this into a coffee grinder, and I have a very nutritious green powder that I can use to thicken soups and gumbo-like dishes.   

 

Bonus Box 3: WARNING:  Mallow often inhabits wasteground and can accumulate poisons from polluted soils and waters.   This goes for many of the plants in this book, but much of the mallow I see is essentially inedible because of the sidewalk or parking lot where it accumulates poisons or biological contaminants.   The research suggests that mallow should not be eaten if it has received inorganic fertilizers or runoff.    Don’t be discouraged, though, there’s lots of good clean mallow to go around! 

 

To purchase: https://aerbook.com/maker/productcard-2066659-4706.html