Eating lesser celandine

At the very least I would suggest taking some care about introducing lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) to your garden. Its early growth, glossy leaves, cheery yellow flowers and edible uses all make it attractive, but it has a well-deserved reputation for being invasive in damp or shady areas. In North America, where it is introduced and where several states list it as a noxious invasive species, the cons almost certainly outweigh the pros. In Europe and North Africa, where it is either native or a long established introduction, the situation is different.

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As its Latin name suggests, F. verna is a plant of the spring. It emerges early, flowers early and dies away again before some other plants have even got out of bed – a classic pattern for woodland floor species adapted to making use of spring sunshine before the trees leaf out and hog the lot. Most plants that do this are bulbs – think wild garlic, snowdrops and wild hyacinths (bluebells) – and indeed it might be fair to include lesser celandine in the spring bulbs despite its place in the buttercup family, due to the fleshy little tubers that are the key to both its bulb-like lifestyle and its invasiveness.

Incidentally, the shape of these tubers explains lesser celandine’s other common name: pilewort. Their shape was considered to resemble that of haemorrhoids or piles. Under the ancient ‘doctrine of signatures’, God was held to have marked each species to indicate its use to humans, so this resemblance was considered a sure fire sign that celandine would cure piles.

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Lesser celandine roots. By Christian Hummert (Ixitixel) – Own work, CC BY 2.5

In truth, the doctrine of signatures should probably be placed in the same location as haemorrhoid cream, but there is no denying the tubers’ use to the plant itself. A handy underground store of nutrients, chock full of toxins, is just the thing needed for an early start to the year. It is also the key to the plant’s persistence, as it is hard to remove all the tubers, and the ease with which it can be accidentally spread around the garden (or the wild). As a result, lesser celandine quickly forms a carpet of growth in favourable conditions.

All this said, there are also reasons why lesser celandine finds it difficult to become a serious pest in any well-managed garden. Despite the seeming ability of the tubers to get everywhere, it doesn’t actually ‘run’, either underground like couch grass or overground like its cousin, creeping buttercup. It’s also a very low growing plant. Its ambition is not to get into the full sun, so it rarely provides serious competition for other plants and it is really quite easy to weed out. It also has an Achilles’ heel, which is that it needs constant moisture to stop the tubers drying out, and it’s never going to be a problem in dry, sunny areas of the garden.

I now let lesser celandine grow in some areas of my garden, where it fills a useful niche as an early spring green – although some caution is required here too! All parts of the plant contain a toxin called protoanemonin, common to the buttercup family. You’ll know if you get protoanemonin in your mouth as it creates an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth and throat. Fortunately, protoanemonin is easily broken down by heat or drying so it is easy to get rid of.

fried lesser celandine

Fried lesser celandine

Different sources seem to have different ideas about the amount of protoanemonin in lesser celandine. Miles Irving, the author of ‘The Forager Handbook’ says “Leaves contain protoanemonin, but in minute quantities. Levels are said to increase as the plant comes into flower, but I have eaten plenty of leaves from flowering plants and come to no harm.” and “Leaves are attractive; the flavour quite mild; good bulking for wild salads containing other, stronger flavours.” Perhaps English celandine is different from Scottish, or perhaps Miles is just more tolerant than I am, but I can’t say that this matches my experience. I only use lesser celandine greens cooked, as a pot herb, an ingredient in leaf sauce, in a stir fry (where they keep their succulent texture) or fried in olive oil until they become crispy. Plants for a Future have an interesting note that the flower buds make a good substitute for capers, but I have yet to try this. Whether or not levels of protoanemonin increase with time, I make most use of it early in the season when there are fewer other leaves around. Miles also says that the tubers have a flavour and texture similar to potatoes and can be use boiled or roasted, but my opinion is that life is too short.

Some variations on the regular lesser celandine are available. There is are varieties that do not produce tubers and are therefore much easier to control. I’m not sure, however, how easy this strain is to get hold of and whether or not it will tend to revert to tuberising as it self-seeds – I suspect so. There is also a handsome bronze variety which looks very striking with the bright yellow flowers against dark purple leaves.

Ficaria verna

Bronze Ficaria verna (R), Primula veris (L)

Leaf sauce

One of the challenges of cooking from the forest garden is using the large amount of leaves, some bland, some quite strongly flavoured, that it produces. Over the years I’ve experimented with various ways of cooking with them, always with the rule that the result must be actively attractive to eat, not merely a way of using up a glut. One of the best is one of the simplest, cooking them together as pot herbs, but I now have a new favourite, leaf sauce!

In short, leaf sauce is a mix of leaves and shoots: steamed, blended and seasoned. Its strength is the opportunity that it gives to blend together lots of different flavours into something very rich and complex. So far the two killer apps I have found for it are pasta and curry, but I’m sure creative chefs could find many more.

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The recipe… well, there is no exact recipe. The keys to making it are flexibility and diversity. It can be made at almost any time of year with whatever is at hand and available in the garden. The leaf sauce year begins in February or, in a cold year, March, with the emergence of the wild garlic and other leafy alliums and the start back into growth (in a mild year it hardly stops) of kale, sea beet and leaf celery. Not far behind these are two members of the dock family, herb patience and monk’s rhubarb.

Soon various spring shoots are starting to come up. Lovage, sweet cicely, alexanders, hogweed and ground elder are all excellent used this way. They are all strong-flavoured members of the carrot family that are somewhat milder when the new leaves are just emerging in spring and summer. Hogweed requires a little care in harvesting. Udo and its relatives are similar, and some members of the daisy family also produce tender leaves in spring, notably salsify and scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica). Young hosta shoots are better used as vegetables but once they unfurl into leaves they can be used in the sauce. Nettles are good to use any time between their emergence and when they start to flower.

The trees also get in on the act. Lime trees in general and small-leaved lime in particular have succulent spring leaves. I’m also trialling toon (Toona sinensis), said to have edible leaves and shoots tasting of onions! Elm leaves aren’t edible, but their seeds are and they are produced in incredible abundance. Climbing up the trees you might find Hablitzia tamnoides, Caucasian climbing spinach.

As we get into summer, the annuals come into play, with more familiar crops such as spinach and mustard. Some crops better known for other parts also have usable leaves, including beetroot, broad beans, peas and radishes, and I’m not even going to try to list all the herbs that can be included.
In autumn, some of the plants that ran to seed and became unpalatable in summer have a second flush of fresh growth, including celery, herb patience and sweet cicely. Nasturtium also starts serious production around this time.

Even in winter there are still abundant ingredients for this dish. The pictures below are from a leaf sauce curry I made in November, with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, apples, broad beans and a vast array of roots, with a sauce from leeks, kale, celery, walking onions, sweet cicely, wasabi (leaves), common mallow and leaf beet.

Recipe (sort of)

  1. Pick a lot of leaves and shoots. They will boil down a lot and leftover sauce is ideal for freezing, so it’s difficult to pick too many. I usually aim for a carrier bag full. Go for a good mix of types for depth of flavour, with a balance of bland and strongly flavoured ones. This is a bit trial and error and you will find out what you like best over time. For curries I usually go for a greater proportion of strongly flavoured ones and for pasta I add more Mediterranean herbs such as oregano.
  2. Wash and drain and coarsely chop the leaves.
  3. Chop and fry an onion. Once the onion goes clear, add garlic and any chopped or ground (not powdered) spices herbs that you like.
  4. Fry a few minutes more. Add powdered spices, stir and fry very briefly. Throw in the leaves and add a little water so that the bottom of the pan is just covered with water. Sprinkle a little salt over the top if desired and put the lid on.
  5. Steam the leaves for 15-20 min, topping up the water if the bottom of the pan ever looks like drying out.
  6. Remove from the heat and liquidise the leaves. I use a small hand-held blender for this.
  7. Now stir in any other flavourings you like, be it stock powder, curry paste, soy sauce, olive oil or whatever. When making curry I tend to get very eclectic as practically any flavour, if used at a level just below where you start to taste it individually, will add to the depth of flavour.

When it comes to combining the sauce with the rest of a dish, such as the chunky ingredients in a curry, I tend to cook them separately and combine them near the end as finished leaf sauce is thick enough to burn very easily on the hob if not stirred regularly. If you want to cook them together for longer it’s better to water it down a bit to avoid sticking.

 

Eating nasturtiums

At this time of year, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are making a splash everywhere, in flower beds, in hanging baskets, in the forest garden – and in the wok and saucepan. Many people will know nasturtiums for their brightly coloured, peppery tasting flowers, but there is a lot more to their culinary use than that.
All parts of the nasturtium – leaves, flowers and seeds – contain the aromatic oil that makes them taste similar to watercress, and all parts can be used in recipes that exploit this flavour. The flowers look spectacular in a salad or as a garnish and the leaves give an interesting twist to pesto. For me though, the biggest attraction is that all this colour and spice mask a less showy but equally useful side to nasturtium, as a very well flavoured green vegetable.

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If you cook nasturtium greens, you will be left in no doubt that the aromatic oils are being driven off, as the heady smell fills the kitchen. The surprise is what is left at the end: neither the cress flavour of the raw vegetable nor the bland taste that might be expected, but another taste entirely, distinctive and very pleasant. One way to enjoy this is as a pot herb or spinach. Fry a small onion and some garlic in a pan until soft, then throw in a good quantity of washed nasturtium leaves and a little extra water. Put the lid on and cook for a few minutes. You’ll smell the oil being driven off – once that is over the leaves are ready. The result not only has a nice flavour but also a good texture: soft and buttery. This is very nice as a side dish in its own right, or you could substitute nasturtium leaves for spinach in more complex dishes or mix them together with other leaves.

Another way to use nasturtium is to harvest the soft growing tips, nipping off about 10 centimetres of growth, and use them in a stir fry. I add them near the end: they don’t need a lot of cooking and the ideal is if they keep a little of their cress flavour but not too much.

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Nasturtiums are prolific seeders, and this gives another great product: the pickled green seeds. These are often described as caper substitutes, but to my taste they are on a par with capers. Used in similar ways but with a different taste, I’m happy to have both available. There are great preparation instructions on Garden Betty’s blog.

Nasturtiums like a well-drained soil, preferably in full sun. Growing guides tend to say that they do best in poor soil, but it is more accurate to say that they flower best in poor soil. They will grow quite happily in a rich soil, with lots of leaf growth. They are quite rampant and may smother plants that are too close, so give them a bit of space or plant them next to a taller plant that they can scramble up without inconveniencing too much. In my forest garden I have them planted next to some raspberries and also able to cascade over a low wall. The space next to them has wild garlic, which is well over before the nasturtiums really get going. Nasturtiums are annual but they produce lots of seed and often self seed; however, it’s still a good idea to save some seed over the winter so you can plant them where you want them. They can vary in vigour, flavour and size and the tips of some plants are a bit woody, so seed saving gives you a chance to propagate from your best plants.

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Rhubarb chutney – the reboot

I’m always on the lookout for uses for rhubarb as it is such a great perennial vegetable and forest garden crop, so it has always been a bit of a disappointment that I don’t really like traditional rhubarb chutney, which I find over-sweet, over-spiced and a bit cloying. I’ve also never seen the point of adding gallons of vinegar to a recipe and then boiling almost all of it off again. This year, I decided to see if I could reinvent rhubarb chutney, to turn it into something that I would actually want to make and eat – something that would make much better use of forest garden ingredients and rely less on imported dried fruit. Luckily, I seem to have hit the jackpot the very first time round. I love the result and so has everyone I have fed it to so far.

The quantities in this recipe are very approximate and could be varied according to taste. I use about half as much sugar as I do rhubarb, which means that it keeps well while sealed in jars but needs to be kept in the fridge once opened. If you like it sweeter you could add more sugar and get more preservative effect. The spices are ones that appeal to me and that I have available in the garden, but you could vary them according to your own tastes. The key to the recipe is adding pickling vinegar right at the end. The strength of the pickling vinegar means that it doesn’t dilute the chutney too much and the pickle spices (I used Sarson’s white pickling vinegar, which comes already spiced) give a real depth to the flavour.

Ingredients
2 kg rhubarb stems
8 sweet cicely shoots (i.e the young leaves, before they unfurl)
2 lovage shoots
2 alexanders shoots
1 kg sugar
30 g fresh root ginger
approx 150 ml pickling vinegar

Method
1. Cut the rhubarb, sweet cicely and lovage into 1cm lengths, cover with the sugar and leave for a day or two for the sugar to draw all the juice out of the vegetables.
2. Put in a large pan. Chop the ginger finely and add. Cook until it has become thick and ‘jammy’ (takes 30-40 min).
3. Add the pickling vinegar, a bit at a time, until the balance between sweet and sour tastes right to you (it’s hot, obviously, so don’t scald your tongue).
4. Pour into heated, sterilised jars and seal immediately.

And that’s it. I’d love to hear if you try it, what you think of it and any variations that you make. I find it goes equally well in a curry setting, scooped up on papadums, or as a pickle with oatcakes.

Eating elm seeds

Every May there is a brief, overwhelmingly abundant forest harvest: the seeds of the wych elm or Ulmus glabra.

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elm flower, By Hermann Schachner (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

An elm in seed is a wonderful sight. It begins with tiny, nondescript (but quite beautiful if you look closely) flowers. Being wind-pollinated, they dispense with showy petals and rely on sheer numbers of pollen grains blowing in the wind to find a partner. Over spring they develop into the mature seeds. The seeds are green, leafy and coin sized; they develop before the tree has produced leaves but they are so numerous that a seed-bearing elm looks like it has come into leaf already. This prolific production is the elm’s insurance policy. Where some trees pack their seeds with toxins to deter seed-eating animals, the elm’s strategy is to produce as many seeds as possible as quickly as possible so that no predator can have a hope of taking more than a fraction.

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a curtain of elm seeds

The maturing fruit goes through several stages. It starts very much like a leaf, but as it grows the seed in the centre begins to develop and the whole thing develops a succulent oiliness. Beyond this stage, they turn dry, brittle and brown and blow off the tree. Around seeding elms there is a premature autumn at the end of spring as little drifts of the seeds carpet the ground like fallen leaves.

A human wishing to eat elm seeds faces the same problem as any other seed-eater – the sheer overwhelming number and the far-too-brief period when they are in the sweet spot of oily edibility. It’s hard not to fall prey to foraging greed, but I’ve learned to be sanguine about the fact that most of this bounty will dry up and blow away and just to enjoy a fraction of it while it lasts. The best use of elm seeds is in a salad where, as one source puts it, they will leave ‘the mouth feeling fresh and the breath smelling pleasant’. Cooking them is harder: one of the best uses I have found so far is as a component, along with wild garlic, nettles, kale and other spring greens, of ‘leaf sauce curry’ (about which I’ll post soon). This is a dish that lends itself well to being cooked in huge vats and frozen in portions, which helps to preserve the bounty a little.

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Of course, I am lucky to have elm seeds at all. Many elms worldwide have been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. In the north of Scotland we are quite fortunate. Our native wych elms are more diverse and resistant than the English elm (Ulmus procera) and the cold, windy climate makes it harder for the bark beetles that spread the fungus to get around. As a result the spread of the disease has been slower and we still have many fine trees.

In other areas, all is not necessarily lost for the elm. There are now various projects to breed or discover elms with some degree of resistance to the disease. Some are based on attempts to shuffle the genetic pack by hybridising different elm species. While this can be effective it does have the downside that the results cannot be called native in any area and, ironically, one of the leading cultivars has been suspected of increasing the spread of a different elm disease. The Conservation Foundation supplies clones of native (UK) elms that have shown some signs of resistance and I have planted several round my local area. Finally, there is a chance that resistance might emerge more organically from wild trees in areas like northern Scotland where transmission rates are lower and death rates less catastrophic. If you want to give the elm a helping hand by finding a home for some resistant varieties, I’m sure they would be happy to repay you by supplying some seeds to fill your stomach and freshen your breath.

too late

too late

Broad bean hummus

The wavefront of wild garlic emergence, crashing northward through the country, has finally hit Aberdeen, trailing Spring in its wake. In celebration, I picked half a dozen leaves to make a bioregional dish I call Green Hummus.

The main ingredient of this is not actually ḥummuṣ (chickpeas) at all, but another pulse that grows far better in my Scottish garden: broad beans (Vicia faba). I used a heritage variety called ‘Crimson Flowered’ which makes a particularly green bean (a quality which completely fails to come out in the photo below) as well as a very attractive plant. I soak them for a few days then give them just 3 minutes at full boil in a pressure cooker. The complete ingredient list is:

200g (7 oz) cooked broad beans
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp water
lemon juice to taste
salt to taste
6 or more wild garlic leaves

green hummus ingredients

Preparation is simple: just blend all the ingredients together to a smooth texture. You are trying to make an emulsion, so if the mixture is still grainy, add a little bit more water.

As a quick glance at any supermarket shelf will tell you, you can mess about more or less endlessly with the basic formula. You could add some tahini to bring it closer to the traditional hummus bi tahina. You could make it more local by using rapeseed or hemp oil instead of the olive oil. You could add some of the other herbs available in the forest garden at this time of year, such as parsley, celery leaf, land cress, salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), various onions, wasabi leaf, alexanders, hedge garlic or sorrel. Indeed, you could add anchovies, olives, coriander or a deep-fried Mars Bar, but I think that the plain version can’t be beaten.
Don’t expect green hummus to taste like the chickpea paste, but do expect it to have a wonderful flavour all of its own. A fertile Spring to all of you.

Eating hogweed

Talk about giving a plant a bad name! The hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) in my garden is neither a weed nor for the hogs: it is a valued vegetable. It does need to be handled with some care though.

Hogweed has some pretty knowledgeable fans. Roger Phillips, author of Wild Food, describes it as ‘Unequivocally one of the best vegetables I have eaten.” while Margaret Lear of Plants with Purpose, writing in A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests, calls it “an epicurean vegetable for the hungry gap”.

Like many other members of the carrot family, the best part of hogweed is the young leaf shoot, picked before the leaves have properly unfurled. The tastiest way of eating them is to sauté them in butter until they develop a melting texture and a slightly caramelised taste. Achieving this can take some practice though. Undercooked hogweed is not at all nice and might be dangerous. I find that it requires some moisture to cook right through, so wash the shoots before cooking and use without drying, and add a little more water later on if required. The exact cooking time is around 10 minutes, but varies with the size of the shoots. Larger shoots take longer to cook and it can be a good idea to cook them first, adding in smaller ones later. A variation is to add a little stock after frying, then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes to braise them.

hogweed shoots

hogweed shoots

One of my favourite uses of hogweed is to make soup. I slice up the shoots to 1 cm lengths and cook for 10 minutes in some stock along with some wild garlic leaves, then use a hand blender to blend it to a smooth consistency. The result is very creamy, with a delicate but distinctive flavour. Apart from this, it is a useful vegetable in any recipe where it will be cooked through, such as stews, curries or pasta sauce. I have also found it very tasty cooked with other shoots in tempura.

Hogweed leaf stems are covered in tiny hairs which I usually prefer to rub off before cooking. As they get older they get stringier and it can be worth peeling larger shoots. They store well in the fridge for a few days: in my experience they store much better if dry, so best to leave cleaning them until you are ready to use them (but see the note below). If blanched in hot water for a couple of minutes they will freeze well for later use.

Other parts of hogweed that can be used include the immature flower heads, which come neatly wrapped in papery bracts, and the seeds. The flower heads are best while still inside the bract although they remain edible until the flowers themselves open. The dried seeds have a wonderful citrusy aroma which makes an excellent addition to a spice mix. Even more exotic uses of hogweed have been reported: the Plants for a Future website says that the leaf stems are tied in bundles and dried in the sun until a sweet substance resembling sugar forms on them. Professional forager Miles Irving reports that the original borscht, now a pickled beetroot soup, was made from lacto-fermented hogweed leaves.

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

hogweed flowers at varying stages of opening

However, before you go rushing out to the hedgerows and roadsides where hogweed likes to grow I need to sound several notes of caution. Hogweed can be dangerous: the risks come both from the possibility of confusing it with other species and from hazards that are present even if you have the right plant.
The most obvious danger with hogweed comes from confusing it with its close relative giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzeniga), which can cause disabling burns from contact with its sap. It is also has a superficial resemblance to several other members of the carrot family, some of which are distinctly poisonous. If you are going to try to eat hogweed, make sure that you can positively identify it using a guide which is comprehensive enough to distinguish it from all the possible lookalikes in your area. In particular, get to know what young giant hogweed looks like and how to tell it apart from normal hogweed. If you aren’t sure, don’t put it in your mouth (in fact be careful about even touching it)! That said, hogweed is quite distinctive once you get to know it.

If that weren’t enough, even when you do have the genuine article hogweed can be harmful due to toxins called furanocoumarins found in its sap. These can cause milder but still quite nasty versions of the burns caused by giant hogweed. I know this from painful personal experience after getting some of its sap on my arm while strimming in hot, sunny weather (we aren’t cursed with such weather too often in Aberdeen, so I wasn’t aware of the risk at the time). The affected area formed a wound that took months to get better since every time it healed and the scab came off the new skin underneath was damaged again.

As bad as this sounds, a little care is enough to avoid getting the sap on your skin in strong sunlight and I have never had any problems while handling it for food preparation. I always make sure to wash my hands immediately after cutting it up but that is all. Furanocoumarins are also found in more usual vegetables such as celery, parsnips and citrus fruits like grapefruit. In grapefruit they are famous for inhibiting the action of certain drugs, so it is quite possible that this might also be true with hogweed. Furanocoumarin levels are generally increased by damage and during storage, so it may be sensible to use your hogweed fresh and trim off the ends of the shoots. Quite how much furanocoumarin is in British hogweed is uncertain. Plants for a Future suggest that the sub-species sphondylium and sibirica (the only two listed on the Euro+Med plant database as being present in Britain) are not phototoxic but I would be sceptical about that.

Given that hogweed must be one of our most common wild plants, why might you want to grow it? I have some in my garden so that I can always be sure of finding some whenever I need. I can also extend the season as hogweed resprouts through most of the year if it is cut down. Otherwise the edible shoots are mostly over by the end of June. It is a woodland edge species, enjoying a rich soil and a little shelter but not growing in deep shade. If growing it in your garden it is advisable to remove the seed heads as it can self seed quite freely.

All in all, hogweed may require some care but I would rather get to know the dangers of plants and then use them safely than live in ignorance and fear of them. The reward is the distinctive taste of a vegetable that well deserves the praise heaped upon it by wild food enthusiasts.

Growing and eating udo – Aralia cordata

Udo (Aralia cordata) may be one of the largest vegetables you will ever grow in your garden. It is a herbaceous perennial, dying right down to the ground every year, then growing to over two metres in height in the summer, so the spring growth is truly spectacular. Since the young shoots can be eaten, this means that it is also very productive.

Udo is one of the Japanese sansai or ‘mountain herbs’. These are usually foraged from the wild rather than being cultivated, but if you don’t happen to have them growing on a nearby mountain they are often quite simple to grow, especially in a forest garden.

Udo will tolerate quite deep shade, making it very useful for awkward shady spots in the garden. Mine has a privet hedge on two sides and a large bamboo on a third: the only relatively open side is the north – but still it seems quite happy. On the other hand, they don’t seem to mind more open conditions either: the one growing in the local Botanic Garden is on a south-facing wall and seems to be thriving. In fact, it was this plant that first gave me a chance to try out a good range of udo recipes while my own plants were still establishing. Mark Paterson, the curator of the garden, generously gave me permission to carry off part of their prize specimen in the name of research.

Udo - with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Udo – with my 6-ft-something brother as a yardstick

Here, the stems emerge in April and are good to eat for a couple of months after that. The skin has a bitter, resinous taste, so it is usually removed – peeled off when the stems are young or pared away as it gets increasingly woody later on. The remaining pith – about an inch in diameter on mature specimens – is juicy and crispy and has a taste that has been described as citrusy but really is very distinctive and like nothing else.

Western sources mostly only describe one way of using udo – slicing the pith thinly then soaking it to get rid of any remaining resiny flavour and using it in salads. This is indeed very nice but it seems a great waste to use such a productive plant in such a limited way. A Japanese blog post suggests using it for both kinpira and tempura. Kinpira involves sautéing thin strips then simmering for a short while with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine. Both ways use plenty of strong flavours so the skin can be left on and the resiny taste used instead of being disposed of. I have tried both these methods and can testify that they are delicious. I also find that udo makes a great stir fry ingredient and goes well in miso soup.

udo parts

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Shoots for tempura: lovage, udo, sweet cicely and hogweed

As well as being a great vegetable, udo is a good ornamental plant, making it very useful for edible-ornamental plantings – just make sure that you plan for the enormous gap it leaves when it dies down in the autumn. It also means that it is a relatively easy plant to get hold of since it is widely sold for this purpose. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and seems to have only two weak spots: the spring growth is a little frost sensitive, so it prefers a growing position that doesn’t get morning sun; and while it is establishing the new growth needs some protection from slugs and snails who like it just as much as I do.

There is also a cultivar of udo called ‘Sun King’ that is widely sold. It has pale yellow foliage and is much less vigorous than the species. It is less use for the pith since stems are smaller, but the growing tips are milder-flavoured and harden off less quickly.

Aralia cordata flower
Aralia cordata, flower 03” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100723103123j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63GLJ6OS9)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.
Aralia cordata fruit
Aralia cordata, fruit 01” by 三上 勝生f:id:elmikamino:20100817141615j:image(Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/63EWlX3Nc)See also the photographer’s blog.. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp via Wikimedia Commons.

Tempura with udo, hogweed, sweet cicely and lovage

If you read online about the origins of the Japanese tempura cooking style, you will discover that it was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries who possibly adapted it from Indian pakora in their colony of Goa. The word comes from the Latin tempora or ‘times’, which was used to refer to the Christian fast days on which meat could not be eaten and fish was a popular substitute. However, we in Scotland know that it is simply an excuse to deep-fry things in batter and that no further justification is needed. If they can then be dipped in soy sauce, so much the better.

I have been experimenting recently with a number of strongly-flavoured shoots from the carrot family, including hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and lovage (Levisticum officinale), and one from the closely related aralia family – udo (Aralia cordata). In all the carrot relatives it is the young leaf stems that are eaten, preferably before the leaf itself has properly unfurled. Lovage is particularly strongly flavoured and is usually used as a herb, but it can be made milder by blanching it – excluding light from the growing stems so that they come up pale and somewhat chastened. Clay forcing pots are traditionally used for this but I find that an upturned bin works just as well (it needs to be large as lovage is quite a size).

With the udo on the other hand it is usually the pith – the flesh inside the central stems – that is used: the resinous skin is peeled or sliced off. In this case, however, I wanted to find a use for the tips of the shoots that are difficult to peel and include the young leaves. I thought that tempura might be a good way of harmonising all these strong flavours.

lovage - udo - sweet cicely - hogweed

lovage – udo – sweet cicely – hogweed

For my tempura batter I used plain wheat flour with a little corn flour, an egg and chilled water. I mixed it briefly so as to keep it light and fluffy. The stems were all cut up into bite-sized lengths, then coated in the batter and deep fried. You get lots of little bits of batter left in the oil once you take the large pieces out: it is good to get these out if you can or they will spoil your oil.

tempura

The verdict? I loved it! The strong flavours were all still there but tempered by the cooking and the mild batter and by the competition with the soy sauce. This is definitely a dish that I will be making again.

Shocking shiitake

It isn’t only plants that we get from the forest garden – it produces a regular supply of mushrooms too. I’ve experimented with growing a wide range of fungi over the years, but for me one really stands out from the others as providing a good supply of produce for the work you put in, and that’s shiitake (Lentinula edodes), which has one secret power that the others don’t.

shiitake

Shiitake is a wood-rotting fungus that is grown on logs: in Britain beech, oak and birch are particularly suitable. Its advantages over other such fungi include that it is a strong grower, quickly colonising its logs and outcompeting the other, less useful, fungi that inevitably turn up and make a bid for complete log domination. It also helps that it is a tasty, nutritious mushroom that is easy to preserve.

Since I work as a forester, I get occasional supplies of the freshly cut logs that are needed for growing shiitake. I quickly order some mushroom spawn (the fungus grown on bran or on softwood dowels) from Ann Miller’s Speciality Mushrooms, which happens to be just up the road but which is behind most suppliers of mushroom spawn in the UK. The spawn is put into holes drilled in the log and sealed with wax (there’s an excellent how-to video about the process on Youtube).

As the fungus colonises the log, I see wedges of white colour appear at the end of the logs as the mycelium works its way up and down the vessels in the wood. After a while these fill in with a chocolatey brown colour which indicates that it is ready to fruit. It also develops a wonderful mushroomy smell. It’s at this point that you can use the trick that makes shiitake so useful. Most wood-rotting mushrooms fruit all at once, giving you a famine followed by an unmanageable glut. This was my experience with oyster mushroom: I would have one week a year eating oyster mushrooms with everything, then back to nothing. In addition, since mushrooms give little notice of when they are going to come out, it is quite possible that you will be away for a few crucial days and come back to find nothing but a rotting mess and feasting slugs. The difference with shiitake is that you can reliably induce individual logs to fruit, as and when you want them.

shiitake mycelium above inoculation holes

shiitake mycelium above inoculation holes

The process for this is known as ‘shocking’, as you are basically trying to give the fungus a fright. First the log is given a sharp rap at either end with a lump hammer, then the whole thing is plunged into cold water for two days or so. Many internet sites will tell you to use iced water but this seems rather wasteful to me as they always fruit quite reliably after being dunked in my (very small) frog pond. Theories abound as to why this treatment actually works. The way it was explained to me was that you are messing with the mushroom’s mind, trying to make it think that its log has fallen out of the tree in an autumn storm and that it needs to reproduce quickly.

Whatever the reason, soon after you take it out of the water you will notice little ‘initials’ appearing through the bark. Over the course of a week or so these swell up into the full-size fruiting bodies. The challenge during this time is to keep it in a cool, moist place away from slugs and snails, which will travel for three days without carrying water at the merest sniff of a shiitake mushroom. I used to swaddle mine in horticultural fleece, which kept the humidity up and the slugs out, but it was awkward and not entirely reliable. Nowadays I put them in my shed, stood up in a plant saucer with a little water in the bottom. This creates a defensive moat and at the same time helps to keep the log wet as fruiting will stop if it dries out. So far this method has been completely reliable. For once I have managed to get on a regular schedule with shocking my logs, doing one a week, and we have had a continual supply of them since May.

Initials

Initials

Shiitake are a versatile and delicious mushroom that can be used in all sorts of ways, so I’ll just share my one favourite way of cooking them with you. If you cut them into thin strips (just a few millimetres thick) and fry them, they develop a texture and even a taste reminiscent of crispy bacon. Instead of putting them in dishes like pasta where the flavour can get a bit lost, I will often cook them this way and put them over the top instead.

Finally, another of shiitake’s super-powers comes into play with any that don’t get eaten in the first few days. Shiitake self-dry incredibly easily if left in any reasonably well ventilated place. They will then store for years but rehydrate very nicely when water is added. I particularly like them in miso soup, where the soaking water can be added to the stock.

Incredible shrinking shiitake

Drying shiitake

Of course, you don’t need a forest garden to grow shiitake, but it is a very good match as there are plenty of damp, shady places where you can leave the logs between fruitings. They can usually be refruited after two months rest and are said to last for two or three years, but some of my big beech logs have been going for eight, so I suspect it depends a lot on the size and species of the log.