MARSHMALLOW

Last week, we featured marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) flowers in our post on edible flowers, this week, we used marshmallow root to make some tasty marshmallows!

Though the modern marshmallow mainly consists of sugar and gelatin, marshmallows used to be made with marshmallow root. The plant's genus name Althaea comes from the Greek althein, which means "to heal." Because of the its demulcent and emollient healing properties, the original confection was created for medicinal purposes, to soothe sore throats and calm irritated digestive tracts. The use of marshmallow both medicinally and as a treat can be dated back to Ancient Egypt, where they would make a concoction using sap extracted from the plant and sweetened with honey. Years later, another version of the candy showed up in France made with egg white meringue, called pâte de guimauve.

These marshmallows are infused with marshmallow root and sweetened with local organic unpasteurized honey, so they are not only a delicious treat, but might actually help next time you have an irritated throat, dry cough or an upset stomach.

We included rose petals in our infusion to add a subtle floral flavour, and because roses are a calming complement to mallow and can also be used as a traditional home remedy for sore throats. 

But that doesn't mean I'm going to wait until I have a cold to eat these marshmallows. I just put some in my dandelion "coffee" and they made the most dreamy, fluffy, sweet, marshmallow foam.

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp organic gelatin powder
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 2 tbsp marshmallow root
  • small handful of dried rose petals
  • 1 cup organic honey
  • 1 tsp rose water
  • cornstarch for dusting

Directions

  • line your baking dish with parchment paper
  • place marshmallow root and rose petals in a small bowl and add hot water. Let sit for 15 minutes, strain and reserve the infused water (make sure it still equals one cup)
  • pour 1/2 cup of your infused water into a large bowl or mixer. Add the gelatin and mix quickly to ensure it is evenly incorporated. Let it sit while you continue with the honey syrup. The gelatin mix will solidify
  • meanwhile, pour the other half of your infused water and your cup of honey into a medium saucepan
  • bring the honey mixture to a boil. Once it boils, stir constantly for about 7-8 minutes - make sure it does not boil over. (If you are using a candy thermometer, remove the pan from the heat as soon as it reaches 240°F, or the soft ball stage)
  • use the mixer or handmixer to begin breaking up the gelatin mixture and slowly begin pouring in the honey syrup along the side of the bowl
  • once all the syrup is added, turn the mixer to high and whip for about ten minutes until the mixture fluffs up and begins to form gentle peaks
  • during the last minute of mixing, add the rose water
  • working quickly, pour the marshmallow cream into your lined baking dish and smooth with a greased spatula (or place a layer of cling film on top, and smooth the surface with your hands
  • let sit at room temperature for 4-6 hours
  • remove cling film - dust a cutting board with corn starch and turn the marshmallow pan onto the cutting board
  • slice into individual marshmallow cubes with a greased knife
  • dust marshmallows with cornstarch to keep them from sticking

STINGING NETTLE

We have been craving this plant. Everything about its deep rich green colour packed full of nutrients as food and as a medicinal ally appeals to us. Consuming this plant always makes us feel healthy, strong, and ready to face the world.

Strangely, over the last few years we have had a difficult time tracking down stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). While we have had access to wood nettle which has similar properties, we’ve only ever been able to find sparse patches of nettle, until now.

We came to the Stone Boat Farm Artist Retreat hoping to find stinging nettle on the property and had been speaking about this plant with our host Amy Nostbakken. Amy asked us about our luck finding any on our first few wanderings, which had been fruitless.
“How do you identify them?” she asked.
“Well,” we said, “Definitely the most obvious way is by the stings."
 “Ohhhhhhhhh!!" said Amy, "I know that plant! I always thought it was poison ivy. My brother and I would get stung by them all over our legs when climbing the apple trees!”

And so, we ventured over to the shady apple trees and sure enough we came across an enormous patch of stinging nettle.

While we weren’t too concerned about the population of stinging nettle, we still aimed to harvest only the tops - pinching them just above the intersection of the fine toothed slightly heart shaped leaves. This ensures that the plant will continue producing and also prevents it from going to flower. This is important if you want to harvest the leaves from the same plant throughout the season as some claim that after flowering, stinging nettle leaves contain cystoliths which could irritate the kidneys. However, this compound is destroyed after drying, so does not pose the same concern for dried tea.

Courtney harvests stinging nettle with her bare hands, making claims to the antihistamine properties of nettle stings and their ability to increase circulation and ease joint pain. Others prefer to use gloves as the hairs on the nettle stalks and leaves contain formic acid which cause quite a bit of irritation that can last for anywhere from a few minutes to several days. We don't worry too much about that, as one of the antidotes to nettle stings is the juice from nettle itself! 

We decided to see if we could transplant a few because we love the idea of having a nettle patch in our home gardens.

One of the other artists at the farm, the talented dancer Nyda, joined us in harvesting this delicious medicinal plant.

“It’s so funny because before we went up to Stone Boat I’d been reading about nettle in terms of kidney cleansing and supporting liver and skin, and I couldn't find any here in Toronto. I work in an organic grocery store part-time and checked the Big Carrot. I went all over the city to different health food stores and wasn't able to find it anywhere.  And then I came out here and there were whole fields of nettle." Nyda laughs at the overwhelming abundance of stinging nettle.

"Because I work with my body I want to feed it everything I can that is going to support it. It's mainly for the health benefits of nettle that I will keep seeking it out, and I want to plant the one that I have.”

We brought our bounty back to the farmhouse and made some delicious mineral-rich medicinal tea by pouring boiling water over the leaves. Nettle loses its stinging properties the moment it is cooked or covered with hot water.

Like most wild-crafted foods, nettle contains substantially more nutrients than many other known "superfoods" including iron and calcium (much more than spinach and kale) magnesium, silica, vitamins, phosphorus, trace minerals, and protein. It is used to treat anemia, rheumatic ailments such as arthritis and gout, and various skin conditions including acne and eczema. Nettle also has antihistamine properties and we've used it to both treat and prevent seasonal allergies. 

In an effort to consume nettle in every possible form, we fried up a bunch of the leaves with dandelion buds and flowers, and wild leeks for lunch.

We cannot begin to sing this plant’s glory enough, and this one article by no means covers its diverse uses and applications. We put some nettle aside to dry for future recipes and will continue to write about it in future posts!

DAYLILIES

A few years ago, I made the mistake of making Nadia taste a daylily flower that was past its prime. Since that experience, she has refused to try anything daylily. Finally, last week, I was able to convince her to give them another chance by cooking up some of the tasty spring tubers, which are reminiscent of fingerling potatoes.

We harvested daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) tubers along with the shoots for a side dish to accompany our meal. Daylilies are a potentially delicious and abundant food source throughout the year. Each part of the plant is edible at some point during its growing stages. Once you get to know this plant you will notice them everywhere - from gardens to roadside ditches.

Hemerocallis fulva along with its many cultivars and relatives are not related to the lily family (Lilium species, many of which are very poisonous), but have a similar flower appearance. Daylilies get their common name from the fact that each individual blossom lasts for only one day.

A note to novice foragers is to be wary of confusing daylily shoots for that of the poisonous iris. I can always tell a daylily apart by its rich light green colour (Nadia refers to it as “spring green”) and the shape of its long leaves which are folded along the midrib, as opposed to the flat sword-like leaves of the iris. Someone once described them to me as looking like two hands facing each other, about to clap. Daylilies have a cluster of tuber roots with hairy rhizomes (see photos) unlike the knobbly bulbs of irises.

The roots become mushy after the plant produces flowers. The best time to harvest daylily tubers is between late fall and early spring when the plant is putting all its energy into the roots. The young shoots in early spring are a pleasant crunchy snack - great for nibbling while you're gathering, or for adding to a salad or stir fry. Generally, daylilies propagate quite easily. I find that there are always a few renegades that try to sneak out of my garden borders which are perfect for picking.

Think of getting to know a plant in all its seasons and in a variety of settings before harvesting, and make sure you know it well - you wouldn’t trust your life in the hands of someone you just met! But if you are certain of its identification, then harvest away.

It is also a good practice to eat only a small amount when trying a new food for the first time. Daylilies have a laxative quality and have been known to give a small percent of the population an upset stomach, so sample a small portion first before making them into a main dish for your meal.

We cleaned the tubers thoroughly, removing the rope-like bits, and boiled them in water until tender but still firm. We fried up some wild leeks (see wild leek post) in butter in a skillet and added the daylily tubers, frying them for another few minutes. The fried tubers made a great starchy accompaniment to our meal and had a similar taste and texture to potatoes. Nadia promptly reformed her opinion of daylilies. The next challenge will be to get her to try the flowers!

Ingredients

  • daylily tubers
  • wild leeks, shallots, onions or garlic (your choice)
  • butter or oil

Directions

  • place daylily tubers in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender but still firm
  • fry wild leeks, shallots, onions or garlic in skillet with oil or butter
  • add the tubers to the skillet and fry for approximately five minutes
  • salt and pepper to taste

LILAC HONEY

I wish you could smell my kitchen right now. The air is heavy and full with the intoxicating perfume of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). There is something so romantic and dreamy about their fragrance which I look forward to every spring. This year, I wanted to try to capture their scent in some way, so that I could bottle it and consume it year-round. 

Happy to find out that the blossoms are edible, I decided to make a simple lilac-infused honey.

I harvested a bouquet of various types of lilacs and plucked the flowers from their bitter stems, filling a jar and packing it to the brim.

The honey I had on hand was a raw local wildflower honey which had crystallized. But it didn't matter, because once the honey was added to the flowers, it began to draw out the liquid through the process of osmosis, turning into a syrup. I sealed the lid tightly and allowed the flowers to steep overnight.

The next day, the contents of the jar had shrunk down to about a third and the flowers had floated up to the top. 

After straining out the flowers, what was left was a beautiful fragrant syrup, tasting distinctly floral and faintly spicy, with a little bit of bitterness softened by the sweetness of the honey.

Ingredients:

  • lilac flowers, picked from stems
  • local raw honey

Directions:

  • fill jar with lilac flowers
  • pour honey overtop
  • allow to steep overnight
  • once the flowers have risen to the stop, strain and preserve the syrup.

WILD LEEKS

Our love of wild leeks (Allium ursinum, also known as ramps) led us to produce this video and to write about sustainable harvesting. The recent trendiness of wild leeks has been a wonderful thing to see as people have been integrating wild local food into their favourite meals. Unfortunately it has led to a serious decline in wild leek populations, opened the ground up for wild invasive species to move in, and has had a negative impact on the biodiversity of our local ecosystems.

Wild leeks propagated by seed take five to seven years to reach maturity (the point at which they start producing their own seeds). If the whole plant is harvested, this prevents the plant from being able to produce seeds, effectively killing the plant and its ability to reproduce. Luckily, there is a way to continue to enjoy this wild delicacy without threatening its survival. Harvest only one leaf from each plant, from only 10 percent of the plants per patch and do not take the roots. Pick only what you need - a little goes a long way. This ensures that each plant will continue to mature and bare seeds.

In this video, Courtney harvests some wild leeks and makes a delicious pasta dish, adding some dandelion roots, leaves and buds. You will notice that Courtney only takes one leaf from each wild leek plant. Furthermore, while we shot some of the scenes in public Peterborough parks, we did not harvest from these places but found a robust population on a friend's property. It is illegal to harvest plants in conservation areas for good reason, and the wild leek decline is one of these reasons. If you notice that a patch has already been foraged from, it is best to refrain from picking any more that year. 

We do not normally harvest the root, but this is what the wild leek bulbs look like, for identification purposes. Wild leeks have white bulbs similar to spring onions and reddish stems that emerge from the earth separately, leading up to the long green leaves. But probably the best way to identify them is by their pungent garlicky onion smell.

Avoid the wild leek's deadly poisonous lookalike, lily of the valley. We have seen these plants grow side-by-side on more than one occasion, so make sure to pay attention. Lily of the valley have similar long green leaves, but they emerge curled around a single stem and they do not have bulbs, but have longer roots.

If you don't have access to a wild leek source, don't worry, there are many other wonderful plants available to you. Harvesting certain plants, especially invasive species can even have a beneficial impact to the ecosystem. In this video we also harvested some dandelions from Courtney’s backyard before they flowered and became bitter. At this stage of growth they added a mild and flavourful taste akin to rapini to our pasta. Dandelions are something you don't need to worry about over-harvesting. If you don't have any available where you live, you are sure to find a neighbour who would be grateful to have you take some off their hands. Maybe offer them a little taste of what you make to share the delicious gift they offer!

OSTRICH FERN FIDDLEHEADS

Around Peterborough, we have stopped harvesting fiddleheads all together as we have watched their population decline due to over-harvesting and their increase in popularity. Here however, in the north-eastern woods of Lanark County, Ontario, we were told by the landowners that this delicious, tender spring food runs rampant on their property.

We ventured into the woods slathered in our handmade catnip bug repellent and suited up in bug net jackets to protect us from black flies and ticks. The rich loamy smell of the swamp felt good in our lungs and we exclaimed in amazement as we came across an abundant crop of ostrich fern fiddleheads slowly unfurling.

When foraging, we always consider sustainability, keeping the intention to enhance the ecosystem whenever possible and never to hinder it.  We harvested the larger juicy looking tendrils, leaving smaller ones that may have been from younger plants. We also made sure to take only two out of five or six tendrils to ensure that we didn't damage the plant too much and that it had enough energy to regenerate itself for future years. We also made sure to harvest close to the stalk, many people only harvest the top fiddles, but the stalks are equally if not more delicious and provide even more bounty to your harvest as long as the tops are still tightly wound.

We distinguished the ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) from some poisonous relatives growing alongside by noticing their relatively larger size, papery scales (similar to onions skins), the deep grooves on their stalks and the brown feather-like fronds that grow from the same raised rootstock (for a complete description of Ostrich Ferns see Samuel Thayer’s excellent book The Forager’s Harvest).

The above two photos are NOT ostrich ferns. Learn to distinguish ostrich ferns from other poisonous look-alikes before harvesting and consuming them on your own.

Courtney carries her harvested bounty in her sun hat.

We cleaned the fiddleheads by removing the papery scales and soaking them in cold water for an hour. After rinsing several times, we steamed them for five minutes until they changed to a lighter, pale green.

We fried some wild leeks in butter and a bit of salt in a cast iron skillet and added the fiddleheads, frying them for another few minutes until tender. We added salt, pepper and lemon to taste.  Delicious!