Beebop a reebop a Japanese Knotweed preserve

Among the many fantasy hobbies I have, one of my favorites is fantasy foraging. All winter long, I have Northeast Foraging on my bedside stand, attempting to memorize the facts for field garlic or may apples or fiddleheads so that on some future date I might be walking through the Fells, stop short and knowingly declare to my companion “Ah, it looks like the epazote is in season. Excellent, my last preserved set is nearly done, and my enchiladas simply aren’t the same without it!” Then (in my fantasy life) I’d take out my beautifully prepared foraging kit, expertly select a sustainable harvest of the plant in question, and then go home and use it in my latest home cooked meal that night.

I do have a great imagination, don’t I? It’s a consolation in this troubled age.

On Saturday, Adam and I took a run along a portion of the as-yet-unfinished Tri-Community Greenway. Running along, I spotted not two blocks from my house one of the approximately five plants I *can* ID at sight – the ubiquitous Japanese Knotweed.

A common sight

Today, in a break in the rain, Adam and I returned to the spot, knives in hand, to make our harvest. A very very short time later we had about 10x more knotweed than we needed, and I returned to the kitchen. In my fozen reserves are one pound of chopped rhubarb from last season. It’s difficult to get one’s rhubarb and one’s strawberries to tie out perfectly, especially when one has preteen boys who like strawberries. So here’s my plan – I’m going to make rhubarb knotweed jam, using a rhubarb jam recipe. It’ll probably be really quite sour. It may be terrible. It may be amazing. Here’s the journey of discovery!

Step 1: Cut up the knotweed
Fortunately, my handy foraging book explains how to prep the knotweed for use. I only used the smallest shoots, guaranteeing tenderness. I contemplate, cutting them up, how much like octopus they look. I’ve given up eating octopus on the belief that they’re too smart to eat. The same may be true of Japanese Knotweed, but I show no mercy to the invasives.

Choppy choppy

Step 2: Decide on a jam recipe
So here’s a secret for you. There aren’t THAT many variables in a jam recipe. Basically you have fruit mass, sourness, sugar & pectin. The only tricky one is pectin – some plants have it natively (mostly apples). Most don’t. I ended up with:

1 lb cut japanese knotweed
1 lb frozen cut rhubarb
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter (I always add this, despite no recipes ever calling for it, to keep the foaming down. #secrets)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (I debated – this was definitely sour enough – but decided the anti-oxidation factor was worthwhile)
1 packet liquid pectin (Certo)

First I boiled the rhubarb & knotweed in the water until tender.
Then I added the butter & sugar & lemon juice.
Once it was at a roiling boil, I added the pectin & boiled for one additional minute.
Then I jarred it.

Step 3: Realize that making up recipes is harder than it looks
Japanese knotweed is green. Rhubarb is dominantly red. When you mix red and green together, whaddya get? That’s right. Puke brown. With greenish flecks. The color was just… wrong. Bad wrong. You think about taste in a recipe. Perhaps while baking you think about leavening. But you forget about color, about scent and about texture. Or rather, I did. This one had like 5/7 correct. That is, er, not enough.

Not a good food color

Still I sallied on. Lots of foods go through ugly duckling stages. And hey, were we so shallow that we wouldn’t eat food just because it tasted red and looked brown? Well, maybe. I started coming up with a list of people who were known to be polite, regardless of provocation. You know, possible future jam-gift recipients.

Step 4: But how does it look in practical applications?
A great joy in life is mopping up hot jam with fresh bread. The moment of truth arrived. I have 8 jars of this stuff. Would this be my stocking stuffer at Christmas to the long-suffering? Would it be so bad I should just pour it out here and now? Had I discovered a new culinary delight, the likes of which the world had never seen? It was the moment of truth.

It definitely looks better in small quantities

And it was… pretty good? Not bad? Probably better than the jam you get at Denny’s in the little square Smucker’s packages? Perhaps? If you’re into a sort of, er, greenish flavor overtone? And it doesn’t look quite as bad in the jar as in the pot, either.

Could be, uh, something with cinnamon

Step 5: Make other people eat it
I didn’t invite anyone to dinner tonight. No, I rather informed them that they were eating my food. Unless they had a better idea, which I knew they didn’t. I didn’t invite someone who would give me a polite platitude, but rather someone who would tell it to me like it is. I got a mixed reaction – I got neither a flat rejection, nor a subtle request to go home with a jar.

So, all in all, probably a B- effort. That’s below the level I’d need to repeat the experiment.

It definitely looks chives-y on bread. It’s not.

What did we learn from all this?

1) It’s easy to harvest too much Japanese knotweed, but no one cares if you do

2) Maybe it would be good pickled. I liked the shape of the circles. Raw, it’s ok but nothing you’d ever crave. It is apparently very high in resveratrol, but I’m pretty sure the 2:1 sugar to weed ratio more than counterbalances that. Also, I’m pretty sure resveratrol is just an excuse to drink wine.

3) I actually liked it as a jam ingredient except for the critical failing of color. I am trying to think of a seasonal, local green fruit to pair it with. I thought of green grape (I think a sweeter pairing would be better than sour/sour). If you like mint, I think that would be a really interesting pairing (cut down on the sugar and make it a meat sauce). It might also go well in a pie. I’m thinking blueberry would overcome any green and balance it out. I have quite a bit set aside in the freezer, so I might actually try this latter option.

So friends! If you would like some extremely nutritious, hyper-local, small batch artesenal jam, let me know. I have seven jars currently looking for a home – first come, first served!

Just not quite right
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Chicory and jewelweed

So, my life is pretty much pandemonium right now. Word just came that our pastor died on Friday. I just got back from a 9 day tour of California that started with my grandmother’s funeral and ended with a work conference. Piemas is happening this coming weekend. I have international travel planned the week after Piemas. My husband is traveling for a week in there. Holy Week hits then, with the church services and trumpeting. I have a great candidate (Anthony Wilson) running for Stoneham Town Selectman whom I’d really like to support. And to top it all off, Grey has a three month research project due on Beethoven – which is brilliant teaching but requires real work to be done at home. I need to finish the final report on the Mission Study Taskforce (maybe Grey and I can work on our reports together?) And I promised the Historical Commission I’d kick off a project to get some signs for Nobility Hill “at the beginning of the new year” (a time quickly passing).

I swamped!

So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?

Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.

Chicory - helping solve the "no coffee if you're lost in the woods" problem
Chicory – helping solve the “no coffee if you’re lost in the woods” problem

I’d love to hear what your favorite daydreams are and were. But a preferred genre of mine is the frontierswoman/forager fantasy. I read “My Side of the Mountain” at a tender age, shortly after having read the extremely influential “Nya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran“. Both of these books include children whose ingenuity in living off the land and foraging offered a kind of independence – not just from grownups, but from civilization itself. I desperately wanted to be the sort of girl who could safely skin a porcupine, or tan my own leather clothing in an oak stump. I even (oh bliss!) lived in the middle of the woods. Real woods. The kind of woods where if you got lost you were in deep trouble. Woods that had deer and bear and cougars. (I actually saw a cougar in person once only a few miles from my home. Memorable.)

Surely with a hatchet, all the information I’d gleaned from many re-readings of both books (plus Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and several of the other classics – this was actually before “Hatchet”) I’d be all set to live off the land. I was pretty happy and had no desire to run away from home, but I planned out how I could make it work with my extensive skills if needed.

My favorite northwest trail snack
My favorite northwest trail snack

Only one problem – I had no skills. Sure, I knew the uses of a handful of plants. Wood sorrel is extremely tasty and I still often grab a few when I’m wandering in the woods (happily I didn’t eat enough to discover that overconsumption can lead to kidney stones). There’s an abundant plant in the Cascades called Vanilla Leaf that smells great. I was unaware of its insect repelling properties, but had sachets of it tied in my closet for years. (I’ll probably gather another one this year!) I knew to rub the immature heads of fiddles on my nettle stings (somehow I managed to encounter either nettles or blackberries almost every time I went into the woods). The blackberries of the west are so prolific and numerous that it’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in August from their sheer abundance. I enjoyed a huckleberry from an old stump as much as the next girl.

But that was about it. I never fished. I never hunted. And I didn’t have any other plants in my repertoire. I would’ve gotten hungry right fast. And I could never find a book that taught me what I wanted to know…

Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!
Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!

I tried various things during my life to remedy this. I looked for books on plants at the library. They were all arcane and above my head and didn’t have nearly enough pictures. I tried to take a class on Ethnobotany in college. They denied me. Something about “300 level botany class” and “your only science course was Chemistry for English Majors”. Mom and I had a precious book of flowers we took with us backpacking and managed to bag almost all of them, except the Mountain Bog Gentian (above) which took me nearly 20 years.

But I was no nearer my goal of wilderness sustenance. I’d read “survivalist” books while camping, but so many of them are long on concept and short on the sort of detail you want before you put a wild plant in your mouth.

Then, the other day I was in Barnes and Noble with a $20 gift certificate ALL FOR ME. I wandered through the shelves of this actual physical book store. And I came across Northeast Foraging, by Leda Meredith.

Northeast Foraging

Folks, this is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It has great, clear pictures. It has instructions on when to find this stuff, and where. It tells you how to use the parts that are useful. It helpfully informs you about risks or dangers or poisonous lookalikes. It even tells you if the plant is endangered or not. (My favorite lines come from some of the more invasive plants. She says about sustainably harvesting japanese knotweed “You’re joking right? … I guarantee that despite your most ambitious collecting, it will survive. Harvest at will.”

You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it
You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it

I’ve been reading about a few plants every night, and it’s awesome. In the pages of this book, I’ve met many old friends whose names I never knew. I used to play with plantain on the playground (man, I would have LOVED to have known uses for it back then!) I first met chicory the first summer I actually spent in New England and have long admired it from the car window. There’s a mulberry tree on the walk to Lindenwood which I now intend to raid this fall. I’ve seen the odd-looking stands of mayapples and the spring-loaded seed-pods of jewelweed provided me with many a happy moment of lightly touching them to make them go SPROING! But I never knew their names, or uses. It’s such a pleasure to finally come to know a friend you’ve known by sight for a long time.

There are some that are theoretically common which I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’m too north in the range. (Thinking of you, paw-paws!)

But now, in the midst of this tumultuous period, I go to sleep thinking of the old friends, the past walks, and the future adventures I’ll have trying to find and eat some of these.

What do you like to daydream of? Which daydreams did you have as a kid that you’ve sadly lost in grownuphood? (Or did they evolve?)