Jul 092012
 
image-capers in a jar

Photo of capers by Mate Marschalko via Flickr.

In my last post, I grew lyrical over the beauty of the caper flower. But there’s no ignoring that this weed also yields a uniquely-flavored vegetable relish, out there and free for the picking. If you’re brave and have made up your mind to ignore some good thorny stings.

Here’s what you do. To make the effort worth your while, try to locate two caper bushes growing in your vicinity. Well, one great big one will do. Ideally, you visit your crop every morning for a few days, harvesting each part separately, because leaves, stems, fruit and buds appear on the runners at different times and each yields its own flavor. Not to mention that it’s a pain to separate pickled buds from leaves, stems, etc.

image-caper-shoot-buds

For pickling the shoots, cut them into finger-sized lengths and peel. As for the green, oval fruit, pick only the smaller ones. The mature one’s seeds are bitter and spoil the flavor.

Choose only tightly-closed buds. Even a little opening in the husk will make a bud go mushy in the pickling. And surprise: even the leaves are pickle-able. Don’t bother picking individual leaves, just cut the tips off some shoots. You’ll have to scissor away any thorns at home.

Then, like olives, your crop must be soaked to get rid of bitterness. Rinse the dust off and throw out anything with worm holes. Soak  for three days, changing the water daily. This not only leaches harsh flavors out, it encourages development of a flavorful fungus.

Hey, cheese also needs fungus.

Pickling Instructions:

Have ready 1/2 cup (125 grams) soaked and drained caper buds, leaves or stems.

Make a brine of 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup water and 1 tablespoon salt.

Put your caper products in a glass jar and cover with the brine. Leave for 3 days, then taste. If you like it, start using.

You may choose to continue pickling for one week. Either way, once you’re satisfied with the taste, store in the refrigerator.

Notes: if pickling the fruit, make enough brine, the same way as above, to cover the fruit generously. Proceed as above, but start tasting only after a week.

Don’t be alarmed if little white spots appear on your product. This is a natural reaction to the fermentation.

I haven’t salt-pickled capers myself, but am tempted to try it with leaves this summer. Here’s how: after soaking, pat dry between kitchen towels and pack in fine salt, generously covering the herb. Start tasting after a week. Rinse off the salt before eating.

So what do you do with your capers?

  • Put them into salads. The Greeks occasionally put caper leaves and stems in mixed salads.
  • Leaves and fruit taste good with fish and chicken, as a relish.
  • Make tartar sauce with the buds.
  • Or flavor your next tomato sauce with a few buds.

Or make…

Butter Sauce with Capers

4-6 servings

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup capers
1/2 teaspoon salt

Melt the butter, stir in remaining ingredients.

Remove from the flame.

Serve over vegetables or fish, or incorporate into mayonnaise to perk it up.

Try stirring a small amount into cream cheese for super lox and bagels.

Last note: Don’t have capers nearby, or don’t feel like picking? Grow some nasturtiums. The immature buds of nasturtiums can be pickled the same way.

Jul 012012
 

image-caper-flowers
In the arid heat of Israel summers, there’s nothing much on the ground but spiny, prickly thorns that grudgingly yield a yellow flower or two. But if you come across a caper bush, it will be putting forth its white and purple flowers generously.

The green bushes cascading out of the Western Wall are capers.
image-caper-western-wall

Perfectly appropriate. It’s a prolific plant, producing new buds every day during the hot, dry summer. And it’s hard to kill off, because the roots are tough and go far down, entangling themselves with underground rocks. Our sages even compared the Jewish people to the caper for our ability to flower in adversity and survive even after being cut down to the roots.

For Jews in ancient Israel, capers were a cultivated crop. The Bible and the Mishnah mention them as harvests to tithe, and they are subject to the laws of orlah. The fruit, shoots, and flowers have specific Hebrew names: abiyonot, temarot,  and kaparisin. The whole plant is called tsalaf. The green buds we relish as a gourmet treat today may not have been eaten then, as they have no Mishnaic name of their own.

A tiny red shoot stuck in some dry pavement crevice will grow into a bush loaded with flowers and fruit. Those thorny runners snag your clothes as you walk past, reminding you to look, daring you to pick. Like all those brambles and prickles, capers come armed. Small, hook-shaped thorns grow all along their stems and any part of the plant leaks an irritating mustard oil when crushed. This is nature’s way of protecting the plant from foraging animals, and it works for the most part. Not even camels graze on capers.

But foraging humans discovered long ago that the immature bud,  fruit, and juicy stems are delicious, if you know how to pickle.

I used to brave the stings and prickles, going out early to harvest the immature buds and oval green fruit. But I’ve gotten lazy. Nowadays, when I pass by a caper bush, I search for buds that are starting to open.

image-caper-bush

Buds that have opened even slightly are no good for pickling. They go mushy. But if you cut off the stem and put those white-streaked buds in a bowl of water, they open up almost immediately, floating there like butterflies come to rest. The flowers last about 3 days in the water and have a faint, sweet scent.

If you want a bowl of caper flowers, don’t pick mature flowers off the stem. They will melt away in your hand before you get home. Pick buds that show a white streak, even if thin, or ones that are half-way to opening.

Look for some caper recipe ideas here next Monday, including how to pickle a wild crop and how to cook with capers. See you then.

image-caper-flower

Jan 272012
 

image-israeli-wildflowers
I walked out on a sunny, windy day between two rains, and  found flowering henbit, fumaria, and shepherd’s purse.   All three are edible, and are medicine too. But I only picked a few of each, to gather into a delicate bouquet for my eyes to rest on.

I thought you’d like to see them too, so here they are.

 

Jun 282011
 

image-stuffed-mulberry-leaves

By this time of the year in Israel, it’s hot and dry. You need sunblock just to walk to the bus stop.  The empty lot that in spring was lush with waist-high tangles of wild greens looks empty, sandy and dour. A car driving through raises clouds of dust. The bottle of cold water in my hand becomes warm almost before I can drink it.  It doesn’t look like there’s any wild stuff out there to bring home.

But once foraging is in your blood, you’re unconsciously taking note of every living thing you walk past. Look over there – the neighbor’s passiflora vine is dripping with green egg-shaped fruit. Glimpsed behind garden walls, trees have already put forth hard little lemons and oranges. Purslane is out on the ground, a delicious salad vegetable when picked young and tender.

image-mulberry-tree

And there are the mulberry trees.  In my neighborhood, every block or so has its mulberry. Their branches were picked clean by boys and birds a few weeks ago already – and by me. I picked about 5 kilos of dark-red berries to make wine, this spring. But there’s still a harvest in the trees, one that few people know about anymore.

Mulberry leaves aren’t just for silk worms. Dried and crumbled, they make a mildly sweet medicinal tea that’s said to bring down blood sugar. And you can stuff them, like grape leaves.

A nice large handful of medium-sized leaves was enough for one kilo of spiced and seasoned ground lamb. The crisp, dark-green bundles with their juicy meat filling were about the size and length of my thumb.  We ate them hot on Shabbat. The cold leftovers were almost as delicious.

If you have a mulberry tree in your neighborhood and feel inspired to try stuffing the leaves, let the tree keep the biggest ones. They tend to be tough. Pick tender, medium-sized leaves. Very small new leaves are fine too. I think they would make great little appetizers or party fare – less filling than traditional stuffed grape leaves.

My potted plants supplied the fresh herbs for seasoning, but lacking fresh, use dried. Just not basil – there’s no flavor in dried basil. Substitute parsley.

image-stuffed mulberry-leaves

It took about half an hour to fill 35 leaves, but then I was alone. Next time I might shanghai the Little One to stuff leaves with me.

Or not.  I enjoyed filling and rolling the leaves, securing each bundle with a toothpick. It was a little fiddly at first, but I got the hang of it, and what with the radio playing hot jazz and the fan blowing cool air, the work was fun.

Against the time when the trees will have shed their leaves, I picked extra and froze them in sealed plastic bags.

This recipe is less fussy than leaves stuffed with a rice mixture and cooked in a sauce. First, though, go out and pick around 40 mulberry leaves. Rinse them of dust and check for bird droppings or insects. Dry gently. Some will rip, so I advise to pick those 5 extra, just in case.

Lamb-Stuffed Mulberry Leaves

printable version here

Yield: about 35 stuffed leaves. Enough for 4 dinner servings or 35 appetizers.

Ingredients:

1 kg. ground lamb or other firm meat

1 egg, beaten

1 medium onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped fine

1 teaspoon fresh oregano or za’atar, chopped fine

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1- 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

juice of 1 large lemon

2 tablespoons olive oil

More sliced lemon for serving

Method:

Preheat the oven to 350° F, 190° C.

Mix all ingredients except lemon juice and olive oil. Knead the seasoned meat with your hands to mix everything very well.

Line a baking tray with parchment. Place a leaf shiny side down. Take a tablespoon of meat and roll it into a patty in your palms. Place it on the wide end of the leaf. Add a little more meat if it looks skimpy; pull some out if it looks like too much for the leaf to cover.

image-stuffed-mulberry-leaves"/

Roll it up. Don’t be concerned about the sides being open; you won’t get a perfect rectangle with the sides neatly tucked in as with stuffed vine leaves. The patty will become slightly elongated in rolling. Secure the pointed top with a toothpick.

Mix the lemon juice and olive oil in a little bowl. Drizzle it generously all over the tops of the stuffed leaves.

Bake for 15 minutes if you want them juicy. There will be a certain amount of natural drippings in the pan – pour it out when you’ve removed the stuffed leaves, and pour it over them.

If you want a crisp wrapping and somewhat drier filling (good for handing around at a party or for a snack), bake 20 minutes.

Serve with sliced lemon for squeezing over the hot or cold leaves. Rice or bulgur or couscous is nice with these savory little packages. Beer or a chilled wine too.

Ahh…summer in the Middle East.

 

Feb 202011
 

image-saj-bread

Last Friday, I traveled across the country with a bowlful of dough rising on my lap. In the bag with the dough bowl were my chopping block and a big knife wrapped in a kitchen towel. Sitting in the sherut (fixed-route taxi) with nine other strangers and watching the highway whizz by, I thought, At least no one’s going to stop me and suspiciously ask what I’m doing with such a knife.

I actually did intend to chop heads off with it – for my lunch. The heads of nettles and mallows, that is.

Sarah Melamed and I thought it was a good time to show fellow bloggers how to forage for edible weeds. The wild green things don’t have too many more weeks before summer withers them. Now’s the time, so six hardy bloggers stepped out  behind Sarah, glad to be outdoors such a mild, sunny day. She led us around her neighborhood identifying weeds.

Here’s Sarah talking about amaranth, while Yaelianlooks on.

image-explaining-amaranthThere were at least 15 edibles and medicinals growing rampant in the overgrown gardens nearby. Some, like Cape sorrel, are delicious. It has a bright, sour taste. Kids love to nibble on the stems. We ate the leaves and flowers as well, sharing with the bees.

image-cape-sorrellChickweed, a lightly sour, refreshing plant is a great love of mine – I kept finding new things to say about it while Sarah was trying to lead the expedition onward. She is a patient woman.

image-chickweedNotice the line of fine, hairlike fibers twining around the stem. It’s one of the ways to tell chickweed from euphorbia, a toxic look-alike that always grows next to it.

Ariella of AriCooks wanted to hear all about chickweed and took a good handful home.

image-holding-chickweedSarah told us how her son had fallen out of a nearby mulberry tree – smack onto a patch of nettles, like Winnie the Pooh. He roared for his Mom, and she came running out with her heart in her mouth – to find him covered in nettle rash, poor little guy.

There’s a neat way to harvest nettles with a minimum of stinging – cut the stems with scissors, then use the scissors to pick them up by the stem and drop them into your basket.

Only one or two of the Hardy Foragers was interested in trying the scissors system. Truth is, over the years I’ve gotten tough, and pick most of my nettles bare-handed. This horrified the ladies.

image-nettlesThe morning was wearing away and Shabbat still starts early, so we returned to Sarah’s kitchen for lunch. She placed her big iron saj over two burners to get hot. A saj is light and dome-shaped, like an upside-down wok. Druze women bake flatbreads on the hot surface, stretching dough out like pizza and slapping the circles down on the hot saj to bake into crisp, tender flatbread in a few minutes.

The plan to was to make flatbread like that. We all pulled pieces out of the dough I’d brought and tried stretching them out deftly. The bread came out, well, rustic. Mine was frankly pretty awful. The really thick one under everyone’s much nicer breads was mine. Liz Steinberg‘s flatbreads were much the thinnest and crispest.

image-saj-flatbreads

As Liz remarked, it was the first time we English food bloggers had cooked together. It was great fun. And I did chop a mean onion for the greens…

Being the nettle-proof one, I washed and chopped them for cooking, along with a handful of mallows. Into a new pot went all the vegetables, on top of the chopped, sauteed onion. No salt yet – like spinach, nettles absorb a huge amount of it. The greens steamed with no extra water; it took about 10 minutes until they were tender and darker green. Then I salted them lightly, stirred, and covered again.

image-nettles-onions
When the breads were ready and stacked up, the greens were ready too. We stood at the counter, crumbling feta cheese onto them and adding a tablespoon or so of steamed wild greens.

image-saj-breadAlternately, we used labneh yogurt mixed with fresh, chopped za’atar from Sarah’s garden.
labneh w zaatar
That was simply delicious. I had never considered just roughly chopping fresh za’atar and adding it to something like that – would have thought it too strong. You can do the same with fresh oregano and cream cheese or with yogurt strained overnight to become thicker (become labneh, actually).

We put the rolled-up, stuffed flatbreads back on the saj to heat them through and let the cheese melt slightly.

image-stuffed-saj-bread
Sarah had hospitably bought a lovely spread of pastries, but we were most interested in the saj bread stuffed with nettles and cheese. There was a fruit salad, decorated with edible pansy, allysum, and begonia flowers.

image-salad-edible-flowersAs usual when food bloggers get together to eat, we all stood around the table taking pictures of the food and of each other taking pictures. We laugh when we do it, but we do it. Then we sat down and feasted.

You can see the stack of rolled-up breads in the background of this photo: the rose and shepherd’s purse came from Sarah’s garden. garden bouquetYaelian took some great photos and put them on her blog. Although it’s in Finnish, the photos speak for themselves. And joy! you get to see my hands, washing the nettles, there. My hands tingled pleasantly from the nettles, till evening. I do believe my Carpal Tunnel tsuris was alleviated somewhat from the repeated stinging.

Thanks for hosting the morning, Sarah!

Jul 052010
 

purslane-edible-weed

By this time of year, foraging is thin for Israelis. All the tender, juicy wild edibles of late winter and spring have disappeared. Chickweed, nettles, mallows…the wild greens I foraged in March and April are just dried-up skeletons that rustle when the afternoon breeze moves through them.  I think of  dormant seeds dropped on the ground,  roots conserving their strength till the winter rains come again to revive and green the land. And take another big shlook of water, because it’s hot and dry now.

Still, there’s purslane. Purslane loves the heat.  Plenty of purslane in my window boxes every summer. That’s no surprise, because it’s a stubborn weed that’s determined to take over the world. Give it enough water and it’ll grow so big and strong you’ll have to wrestle it out of the ground.

Continue reading »

Jan 142010
 

Rice goes well with the unique, dark flavor of nettles. I was thinking of that this morning when putting away a bunch of dried nettles into glass jars. So I made this risotto. With the melting flavors of vegetables and cheese and the slight chewiness of arborio rice, it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve cooked this week. The nettles warm the body and give you energy, too.

Any of the edible weeds can substitute for nettles, or you can use chard, kale, or spinach. But try nettles, if you’ve gathered some.

Now I know that classical risotto starts with dry white wine – well, I didn’t have any. So I substituted a couple of tablespoons of vodka in a quarter-cup measure, and filled it up with vegetable stock. Risotto calls for Parmesan cheese – I made do with the standard Israeli “yellow cheese,” grated. I would have been divine with Parmesan, but was still very good.

Start with a vegetable stock. Below you see mine.

Vegetable Stock

printable version here

yield: 3 cups

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, thickly sliced

3 garlic cloves

1 stalk of celery, with leaves, chopped

1 carrot, thickly sliced

a handful of cherry tomatoes (or one medium-sized regular tomato), halved

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon  salt

3 cups of water

A tiny pinch of saffron

Method:

1. Bring the above ingredients to a boil, then lower the flame to simmer the broth. Cook, covered, for 15 minutes.

2. Remove the carrot slices from the stock. Allow to cool a little, then chop them into chunks. Set aside.

Risotto classically starts with a good cup of white wine, but I didn’t have any. So I put about 3 tablespoons of vodka in a 1/2-cup measure and filled it up with vegetable stock.  I could have simply used stock, but I felt like vodka. If you have white wine, though, use it.

Risotto With Nettles and Carrots

printable version here

serves 4

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion

1 cup risotto rice

1/2 cup white wine

3/4 cup fresh nettles, or 1/2 cup dried

the carrot slices out of the stock

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup grated cheese, preferably Parmesan

salt

more butter and Parmesan

Method:

1. Chop the nettles. Mine were dry and crisp, so I found it easier to cut them up with scissors.

2. Put the olive oil into a medium-sized pot. Add the chopped onion, and start to cook it over medium heat. The onion should cook till translucent, not at all brown.

3. Add the rice and stir, allowing it to absorb the oil as much as possible but not allowing it to brown.

4. Add the wine (or substitute), and stir. Watch the rice – the liquid should be absorbed before the next steps. The rice will be only partly cooked.

Below you see the texture of the rice at this stage. If you peer into your monitor, you can make out the pocks indicating that the liquid is almost absorbed. Over there, to the left.

5. Add a cupful of vegetable stock; stir. Let it almost become absorbed.

6. Add another cupful of stock; stir and do the same. The rice will be somewhat soupy at this point. Taste, and adjust the salt if you need to.

7. Add the chopped nettles and the carrot chunks; stir, of course.

8. Add the last of the stock. Stir and let the rice cook another 5 minutes.

9. Add the tablespoon of butter and the cheese. Stir well and serve as soon as the cheese has melted.

Add more butter and cheese at the table, if desired.

So comforting, so good! We ate it down to the last grain.

Dec 302009
 

Sarah Melamed of Foodbridge and I will be leading a nature walk through the rocky hillsides close to Kfar Uriyah and the forest near Tarum – on Friday morning, January 8th.  Sarah is a plant biologist with a lifelong passion for nature and I have studied edible and medicinal plants for the past 15 years.

We will meet at 9:300 AM at Nachshon Junction, the intersection of road 44 and 3, about 10 minutes south of Ramla Please bring sensible walking shoes, a field guide if you own one, and plenty of water. The walk will take 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

We hope to show you where the wild things grow. Things like

za’atar

cyclamens

and

flowering almond trees.

Most of these wild edibles and medicinals are protected by law, so it won’t be a foraging expedition but rather an Exploration. Like Winnie the Pooh’s Expedition to the North Pole, only here in Israel.

If you’d like to join us (and you don’t have to be a blogger for this, just a nature lover), email me – my green contact tag floats along the side of the blog on the left. Or email Sarah at Sarah.Melamedatgmaildotcom.

Dec 172009
 

Edible weeds are popping up all over Israel now. Nettles, young plantain leaves, sow thistle, milk thistle, chickweed, and mallows are just a few of them. Earlier this week I explored an empty lot close by, and found a huge quantity of mallows among the wild foods. Some of the leaves were big enough to stuff, like vine leaves.

Before I go on to the recipe, let me tell you about mallows. They grow all over the Mediterranean, North Africa, Europe, and parts of the U.S and Central America. I don’t know if they grow in South America, Australia/New Zealand or the Far East – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. I can tell you though, that once they take hold, they will cover an area.

Mallows are related to okra, hollyhocks, and hibiscus – all edible and medicinal plants. I like to harvest the small young leaves to eat raw in salads, and the big leaves for stuffing. Sometimes I’ll just chop up a big bunch and make soup from them, or stir them into a stew, or into rice, as I do with nettles. I wrote an article about mallows for Henriette Kress’s Herbal Homepage, which you can see here. It includes a recipe for mallows soup.

And every year, I hang bunches of them upside down by their stalks, to dry for cooking when they’re out of season. If you store them in a glass jar, away from light, the leaves will last a year. If I need a soup in a hurry and don’t have much in the fridge, I just reach into my jar of dried mallows (or nettles) and crumble some into the pot, adding instant flavor and nutrition to the food.

I love the striped pink flowers of our native variety, Malva Sylvestris. If I find myself in a field of flowering mallows during one of my foraging walks, I pick as many blooms as I can, to dry for a medicinal tea. This tea soothes the respiratory system and helps to control cough.

You can read much more about the edible and medicinal properties of mallows in the awesome Plants for a Future site. That page doesn’t mention that the mallow roots are edible and medicinal too – so if you happen to uproot a few when you’re out gathering, just scrub them clean, cut the stalk away, and chuck them into soup too.

For stuffing, pick big leaves, at least as big as your outstretched hand. Small leaves are too fiddly to work with.

Check each leaf carefully. Discard any that have lots of little holes in them, or orange spots indicating insect activity. Or other  mallow eaters, like this little guy:

See the rusty orange spots around the Fuzzy One? Discard any leaves with that.

The recipe assumes that you have about 20 large, washed mallow leaves. It’s better to have a few extra because they are tender and some will inevitably rip. Snip off any stalk bits to make rolling them up easy. Keep the leaves shiny side down.

Now for the recipe itself.

Stuffed Mallow Leaves

yield: 20 stuffed leaves

printed version here

Ingredients:

20 large, clean mallow leaves

1 cup of  rice cooked in salted water

1/2  cup pine nuts

1 large tomato, peeled and chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 small onion, chopped fine

2 Tablespoons diced fresh mint or crumbled dried mint

juice and zest of one lemon

2 Tablespoons chopped parsley or celery leaves

1 tsp. salt

pepper

2 large tomatoes, sliced

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and whole

1 teaspoon sugar

2/3 cup olive oil

2/3 cup water

Method:

1. Mix together the rice, pine nuts, chopped tomato, crushed garlic, chopped onion, mint, lemon zest, parsley, salt, and pepper to taste.

2. Line the pot with the sliced tomatoes. This adds flavor and keeps the stuffed leaves from scorching.

 

3. Mix the olive oil, water, sugar, and  lemon juice in a bowl. Set aside.

4. Fill and roll the leaves.

Keep the shiny sides down, stem part towards you.

Just where you snipped the stem off, there is a long, horizontal wrinkle in the leaf (see 2 photos up, the one with the scissors). Put a teaspoon of filling, in a long strip, just above that wrinkle.

Roll the filled edge up once. Fold the sides of the leave over it.

Roll again, making a neat little package. Secure the edge with a toothpick.

I wish I had more and better photos to show the filling process, but I would have needed three hands to do it.

5. Place the stuffed leaves on top of the sliced tomatoes in the pan, stem sides down. Place the whole garlic cloves here and there among them. The following photo shows  a bell pepper in the pot with the mallow – because I wanted to use up leftover stuffing. The flavor of the pepper didn’t hurt the stuffed leaves at all.

6. Pour the oil/water mix over the the contents of the pot. Place a small plate, or a pot lid that fits,  inside the pot to prevent the leaves from unrolling as they cook. Cover the pot with its own lid. Simmer over low flame for 45 minutes. Mallow leaves are tender and release a beneficial mucilage (goopy liquid), so there will be plenty of liquid in the pot. They don’t need to cook as long as vine leaves, which need an hour or more.

7. Allow the leaves to cool down entirely before you remove them from the pan. Serve them cold.

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