Monday, July 31, 2017

Edible Plants in Your Backyard

Image found here
The other night I went to a lecture by Tim MacWelsh at Meadowside Nature Center. I've always been curious about plants you can eat in the wild (besides the obvious berries like blackberries and such), so when I saw a Meet-Up about an event about edible plants, I signed up immediately.

MacWelsh has written several books about wilderness survival, from hunting and foraging to living off the grid or in the wilderness in the winter. He also recommended other books like Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, which lists more than 400 species! He grew up in Virginia, and teaches advanced survival training courses (and does talks like the one I went to). He mentioned the quote, "In the school of the woods, there is no graduation day," meaning we are always learning from nature. And of course he puts a big focus on safety, and always cautions that you should only eat the plants that you know are safe.

Here are the species he talked about:

White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Image found here
You can eat both the leaves and the flowers, which is true of other varieties of clover, too. You can cook them with oil, or just eat them raw. The genus "Trifolium" means "three leaves," so that's an easy way to identify these plants (unless of course you find the rare four-leaf clover!).

Plantain (Plantago major)
Image found here
I believe we saw a subspecies of this, but I think you can eat many types of plantain. A helpful way to identify them is that the veins in the leaves run parallel to one another, and if you were to rip a rip, the texture is a bit stringy. There may even be some purple color at the bottom of the stems. The seed stalk (like in the picture) is also edible; you can rub the seeds off and mix them with grains like cous cous and quinoa.

Not only can you eat this plant, but you can also use it medicinally! If you chew or rip up the leaves, mush it up, and put it on a burn, bee sting, cut, or rash, it will help stop the pain or burning sensation.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Image found here
We didn't actually see this plant, but since the previous plant had medicinal purposes, MacWelsh mentioned this one as well. Stinging nettle can, well, sting, but it actually can act as its own antodote, too! And you can eat it, but only if it's cooked, and it's best in the early spring.

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)

Image found here
The berries were gone when we looked at the plant, but I've seen (and eaten) these before! They are very yummy, and related to blackberries and raspberries. You can eat pretty much anything in the Rubus genus. Other animals eat these berries, too. But MacWelsh did point out that you should NOT watch what other animals eat and assume that the food is safe for humans, too. Birds eat a lot of berries that are poisonous to people, so only eat what you know for sure is safe!

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Image found here
I already knew how to identify a sassafra tree with its three different shaped leaves (The tree also has crooked, winding branches, which can help with IDing, too), and I had heard of sassafras tea. If you dry the leaves, you can add them to a gumbo or jambalaya for a citrus taste; it also acts like corn starch in that it thickens soups. You can use the twigs and/or roots to make tea, and you only need a piece about the size of a pencil. You steep it in water, and then you've got tea; you can even use the same twig/root four times! Some people say that sassafras is carcinogenic, but MacWelsh says you would need to drink 40 gallons of tea a day in order for it to be really dangerous, so you're safe!

And don't feel bad about cutting the roots of the tree. Sassafras grown clonally, meaning that another plant will start growing from where you cut that root. So you're actually helping the species by doing that!

Oaks (Genus Quercus; specifically talking about acorns)

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Acorns are a good source of protein, and each pound of them can give you 2,000 calories! But you can't eat acorns raw. They need to be processed to get rid of the tanic acids (which can cause dry mouth and nausea). You do that by cracking the outer shell off (which is waterproof) and then soaking the nut pieces in water for several hours or even days (tossing out the water and refreshing it regularly) until the bitterness in the nuts is gone.

Of course you can eat them as nuts, but you can also grind them into flour and use that to make cookies, porridge, crackers, and things like that (but not fluffy things like cake or bread; more crumbly things). MacWelsh even suggested putting sassafras tea in a recipe like this instead of water to add even more flavor; what a good idea!

He recommends the acorns of the White Oak (Quercus alba) best, but says those of the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) are good, too. He says late September is a good time to gather acorns. You can simply lay a tarp under an Oak tree and wait for the acorns to fall. You can also easily freeze them, which helps kill any bugs that might be in/on the nuts. Sounds pretty easy!

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)

Image found here
Image found here
This is what we call it in North America, but this plant is more commonly known as Wild Carrot. And it's called that because the roots look like small, white carrots, and that's the part you can eat. To ID this plant, the stem should have little hairs on it, and the brachs underneath (like in the second picture) should have three toes on each of them. If you don't see both of those clues, don't eat it! You might confuse this plant with Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) or Fool's Parsley (Aethusa cynapium), so you want to be really sure it's Wild Carrot before you eat it. The seeds of the Wild Carrot are slightly toxic, and historically were used like a "morning after" pill. But MacWelsh doesn't recommend this as an effective birth control method, so don't gather up a bunch of seeds for that!

The root is better to eat on the first year of this biennial plant (raw or cooked), since the meat is more tender, but the plant can be harder to ID in its first year because it hasn't flowered yet. In the second year, the root is good for flavor, like for putting in a soup, but it's too fibrous to actually eat. This plant is where our own regular carrots came from, so there is a relationship there.

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

Image found here
Image found here
I've definitely seen these fall from a tree before, but I've never eaten them. You want to take the green outside off, let the nuts dry, and then you can crack them open to get to the nut meat, which you can eat raw. These nuts have 180 calories per ounce, so definitely good foraging food.

Dandelions (Taraxacum)
Image found here
You can eat every part of this plant, from the flowers to the stems to the leaves, raw or cooked. MacWelsh says he likes to make dandelion fritters; he coats the flowers in cornmeal batter and then fries them in oil. The leaves are a little bitter, but if you chop them up, sauté them in oil, and mix them with grains like rice or something like that, they're pretty good. Even the root can be roasted like a vegetable, or can be used to make a coffee-like drink (NOT for serious coffee snobs, though!).

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Image found here
Image found here
I already knew the flowers were edible, but he recommended putting them raw into a white cake mix to add some color. What a fun idea! I mainly asked him about this plant because I was curious about their seed pods, which look a lot like pea pods. He recommends only eating them when they are no longer than two inches (one inch is best), and boiling them in water to cook them.

Milkweed (Asclepias)
Image found here
Image found here (along with how to cook them)
You can only eat the immature pods. But I personally would say don't eat them: save them for the endangered monarch butterfly!

Notice that I didn't list any mushrooms. Someone in the group asked about foraging for mushrooms, but he believes doing that isn't worth the risk (since so many are poisonous), and the amount of work for positively IDing a mushroom to be safe for eating isn't worth the few calories you get out of it. He says that the Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) and morel mushrooms (Morchella) are the only ones he feels safe eating.

He also talked about jewelweed, not because it's edible, but because the juice from the stem can be used to counteract the toxins in poison ivy. But you have to be fast for it to work!

Here are some final tips:
-To find a good place to forage, try to go where a truck can't get to; that means it's unlikely that the area has been sprayed with pesticides. You should also forage uphill, since that means less pollution runoff. Also stay away from power lines and train tracks; those also get a lot of traffic.
-For washing plants, usually water is fine. But if you want to be more thorough, you can mix lemon juice with salt in water to make a cleaning mixture. A little bit of iodine can help, too. But, if you're cooking what you've foraged, you're probably okay, because the heat will kill any of those bad, dirty things you don't want to eat.

MacWelsh is so knowledgeable, and really funny! I greatly enjoyed this talk, so if you're in the DC/MD/VA area, I recommend trying to make it to one of his classes/talks!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Cabaret

Image found here
I saw the movie Cabaret for the first time this year during the Washington Jewish Film Festival, so when I found out that the musical was coming to the Kennedy Center, I immediately asked my friend (who watched the film with me) if she wanted to see the show live. We both thought it would be really fun to compare the movie to the live performance.

Image found here
The set was simple but very effective. There were two levels, and the orchestra was seated upstairs, so you could actually see them. What was neat was that they were all in costume! It was like they were part of the Kit Kat Club. At one point many of the musicians fit themselves in the frame (like in the picture above) and performed music from the different songs, which was so cool! I think that might have been my favorite part of the show. You never see the orchestra highlighted like that!

Jon Peterson, who played the Emcee/Master of Ceremonies, was not quite as creepy as the film's Joel Grey, but he was just as silly, and sometimes his French accent sounded just like Grey's. Peterson even did some audience participation, bringing people on stage and making lurid jokes, so that was very funny.

And the music and dancing of the Roundabout Theatre Company were great! I think some songs were added for the musical, but several were the same from the movie:


Mein Herr

If You Could See Her

Sally's a blonde, BLANK is quite masculine, and the lady landlord is a main character. What? Image found here.
There were some bits that threw me off, though. Leigh Ann Larkin, who played Sally Bowles, was a blonde; Liza Minnelli's dark widow's peak haircut is so iconic, so I'm not sure why the play strayed from that. The musical also focused a lot more on the landlord, her love life, and the prostitute neighbor, which I don't remember as a big part of the film at all. And there was a song about a pineapple...
Those aren't two ladies... Image found here.
Also, during the song "Two Ladies," one of the ladies was a man! While it was very funny, that choice in casting doesn't really make sense with the title of the song (clearly). See below for the original from the movie:

 Another song that was different was that Sally did not perform the song "Money" like in the film:

I was very surprised that there was no love triangle in the musical. I thought that was such a big part in the movie, but it was completely left out of this show. We find out that Clifford Bradshaw (Brian Roberts in the film; this time played by Benjamin Eakeley, who is much more masculine than the film's Michael York) has homosexual tendencies way earlier than we do in the film, but we only hear about what he's done in the past. He doesn't seem to act on those feelings during the play itself. Another difference was that in the live show, Sally insists on moving in with Clifford, whereas in the movie, she seems like a pretty independent woman, and he actually spends more time at her place.

The second act of the play was very dark. It focused on the World War II theme, which was an undercurrent in the film, but not a main focus. Clifford wants to get away from the anti-Semitic feelings in Berlin and insists that he and Sally move to the U.S., even though he hasn't even asked her what she wants. She says she wants to go back to work at the Kit Kat Club, which he is completely against; she goes back anyway, and performs the song "Cabaret" with her mascara streaming from crying, which is very different from the positive energy from the movie:

The play ends with the Emcee dressed like a Holocaust victim, acting as if he's been shot multiple times before falling to the ground. Talk about morbid! I understand the importance of including these messages in the play, but it was kind of a let-down to end such a fun evening on a dark note...

In writing this blog post, I did some research and saw that both the play and movie are based on the book Cabaret by Christopher Isherwood; it's somewhat autobiographical, because Isherwood did spend time in Berlin and admitted to exploring its "sexual underworld." Then the first Broadway production came out in 1966, and the film was released in 1972. Now I need to read the book to see which one is most like the original story!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson in Concert

My friend invited me to the 50th Anniversary Concert of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and it was so much fun! I will admit that I slept in and out of the concert (We were laying on a picnic blanket! I couldn't help it!), but I really did enjoy myself. Here are some of the artists and songs we heard:

Grace Potter - She was the Emcee of the night. I only knew who she was because she performs the duets "Wild Child" and "You and Tequila" with Kenny Chesney. But she can hold her own; she has an amazing voice! She only performed a few songs, but my favorite one was "Stars." See the video below (I actually think it sounds better live!).

Father John Misty - He was the opener, and he was the one I really slept I can't even tell you which songs he sang! But he has a pretty good voice; I liked his music (what I heard of it in my sleepy state). But here are some songs I found online that he may or may not have played...Several of them are about his relationship with his wife, so that's romantic and sweet.

I Went to the Store One Day

Holy Shit
Pure Comedy

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings

Willie Nelson - He was the act I was most excited to see. Although I consider myself a country music fan, I'm ashamed to say I actually don't know his music very well. The only thing that comes to mind is his duet "Beer for My Horses" with Tobey Keith. But I did end up recognizing some of the songs. I really liked hearing him live!

On the Road Again

It's All Going to Pot

Always on My Mind

Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys

Georgia on My Mind

Jackson Browne - Here's another artist that I didn't know, even though I realize he's been around for a long time and has some famous hits. I thought he put on a really great show!

Stay (I just thought this was a song from Dirty Dancing!)

Take It Easy (This song was first recorded by the Eagles, but Browne helped write it.)

Because this was the 50th anniversary of the venue, I wanted to learn a bit more about its history. Its Wikipedia page is pretty interesting! Here are some fun facts:
  • It was originally intended to be a summer home for the National Symphony Orchestra.
  • It opened in the summer of 1967 during a torrential downpour that flooded the orchestra to its knees.
  • In 1980, President Jimmy Carter attended a Willie Nelson concert and took the stage to sing a duet of "Georgia on My Mind." He did not attend this past performance, though!
  • As of 2005, Jimmy Buffett had performed at Merriweather Post Pavilion 42 times, the most by any act.
  •  In August 2014, the site made national news when 2 patrons died and 20 others were hospitalized from drug overdoses after a Mad Decent concert. I never heard about this!
  • Three tracks from Jackson Browne's Running on Empty were recorded at the pavilion on August 27, 1977.
  • Animal Collective's critically acclaimed 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion is named in tribute to the pavilion, though the band did not actually perform there until 2011.
 I love this as a summer venue. Who doesn't like listening to live music while picnicking?!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Recipe: Fruit of the Forest Pie

While I was on vacation for the 4th of July, my friend and I discovered that her parents had a blackberry bush in their front yard! So every day we picked as many ripe berries as we could, collecting and saving them until we had enough to make a pie.

We definitely had enough blackberries, but we decided to make a "fruit of the forest" pie, which is a European thing; pretty much it means a berry pie. We ended up adding raspberries and fresh cherries to ours. Here's the transformation:

We sort of winged the recipe, but we based it off of this one from Epicurious:

·         Pastry dough
·         6 cups blackberries (1 3/4 lb)
·         1 to 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
·         1/4 cup cornstarch
·         2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
·         2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
·         2 tablespoons water
·         1 tablespoon quick-cooking tapioca
·         1 egg white, lightly beaten
·         1 tablespoon sanding (coarse) or granulated sugar

1. Make pastry dough.

2. Place a baking sheet in lower third of oven and preheat to 400°F.

3. Toss together berries, granulated sugar to taste, cornstarch, butter, lemon juice, water, and tapioca. Let stand, tossing occasionally, 20 minutes.

4. Roll out 1 piece of dough into a 14-inch round and fit into a 9-inch pie plate (4-cup capacity). Trim edge, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Chill shell while rolling out top.

5. Roll out remaining piece of dough into a roughly 16- by 11-inch rectangle. Cut crosswise into 11 (1 1/4-inch-wide) strips with a fluted pastry wheel or a knife.

6. Stir berry mixture, then spoon evenly into shell. Arrange strips in a tight lattice pattern on top of filling and trim strips close to edge of pan. Roll up and crimp edge. Brush top and edge with egg white and sprinkle all over with sugar.

7. Bake on hot baking sheet until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. (Check pie after 45 minutes: If edge of crust is browning too quickly, cover edge with foil or a pie crust shield and continue baking.) Cool completely on a rack before serving.

First of all, I did not bother to make my own pie crust. While I think homemade crust probably would have made this pie taste a bit yummier, it just saves time and effort to use the Pillsbury pie crusts. Also, we probably used twice as much cornstarch; berry pies can be very wet, so the cornstarch helps to solidify things so you don't have pie soup. We didn't bother with the tapioca or butter, and we only used 2/3 or 3/4 cup of sugar (berries are already naturally sweet!). We did add a little bit of cinnamon, just for taste. And clearly we decided to make our own design on top for Independence Day.

Even with all these changes, I think this pie came out really nicely!

Monday, July 10, 2017

My 4th of July Vacation

I always try to get away from the city and do something fun for the 4th of July. In 2013 I was on the Eastern Shore with my parents and a sorority sister, 2014 I was in New Hampshire, 2015 was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and last year I was in Seattle. So of course this year had to be just as fun!

Not the fireworks from this year, but you get the idea. Image found here
I started my trip the Friday before the holiday, when a friend and I went to see the fireworks at Fort Meade. They were SO good! We sat right up front; we could lay on the grass and just look up to watch the show. There were so many fireworks: different colors, varied designs, and they were loud! I don't know how much money they spent to put on that show, but it was awesome!

As for the trip part of my holiday, I was originally going to visit a friend in Columbia, South Carolina, because she is down there for school. But then she said she was planning to spend a lot of the summer at her parents' lake house in Wisconsin. She invited me up there instead, and I thought, "I'm not going to turn down a lake house!" So I flew into Chicago super-early on July 1, she picked me up, and we made our way up to Hustisford (Ever heard of it? Nope, neither had I).

Our view of the lake. Amazing!
We started our vacation right away. As soon as we arrived, we changed into our bikinis and sunbathed for an hour. I'm glad we did that first thing, because it ended up raining that day! But we didn't let the rain ruin our day. We still walked around the nature trails near the house (it goes around the whole island in a circle, so you can't get lost), and picked blackberries for a pie (recipe here). Each night we had some down time to read, enjoy huge dinners, drink LOTS of wine, and see fireworks on the lake! And on two of the mornings, I woke up pretty early to beautiful sunshine on the lake, so I practiced yoga out on the dock. Glorious!

But we didn't just stay at home: we wanted to explore! We visited the Willow Creek cheese factory (owned by Union Star Cheese), where I tried cheese curds and quark for the first time (Quark is a dairy-based dip, but the one we had was lemon, so it was sweet! Great with animal crackers, FYI).

A little sketchy looking, but the owner is really nice! Image found here
After that, we visited two wineries. Pine River Winery is in a man's basement, which was a little weird, but he had such a variety of wines, and lots of flavored ones, too! I didn't really like the wines, but I did buy a "Raven's Cache" wine glass as my souvenir.

So pretty! Image found here
Then we visited Vines & Rushes Winery, which is a more traditional winery. The space is beautiful, and big! Again, the wines were not all that, but we each bought a glass so we could sit outside with our picnic of cheese (bought that day), crackers, and fruit salad.

Monday was our trip to Milwaukee. We started the day visiting the Boerner Botanical Gardens, where I took a million pictures! Here are just a few:

Such a pretty entrance!
I have never seen a plant that had such obvious male and female flowers! Notice how different the middles of the flower are!
This tree had a knob that eerily looked like a sideways baby head...

The rose gardens are amazing!
There was a waterfall in the park.
They are on-point with their succulents!
This cone flower is a bit out of proportion...
Then we went to a baseball game, because the Orioles just happened to be playing the Brewers (just like they just happened to be playing the Mariners when I went to Seattle last year. Very weird!). The woman attending the parking lot gave us a free pass to park closer to the gate, so that was awesome!
We enjoyed our hotdogs, but after six innings of losing, we left early (thank goodness, because the score didn't change after that!). But I was glad I could wear my patriotic O's shirt again.

The Domes!
After we slipped out of the game, we went to Mitchell Park Conservatory (i.e. "The Domes"), which had been under construction the last time my friend was in town. They were really neat! They are three glass domes that each have a different plant theme: a tropical one, a desert one, and then the "show dome," which had a purple theme to it (I think it changes regularly). Again, many photos:

Both of the botanical gardens had koi fish.
These plants were given water dyed with food coloring. You can see the different colors of the plants, and the white ones have not received the colored water.
This bird sat quite still, so I could get a few good shots of him!
Yes, that's the real name of this plant.
Our actual fourth of July was pretty low-key. We stayed at home, reading, watching movies, and petting the two cats and dogs that my friend's parents brought with them (so cute and friendly). We actually saw the fewest fireworks on our real Independence Day. But we did have a beautiful moon that night!

Such a great vacation! I would love to visit again. Hard to beat having so much fun!