A few weeks back, I wrote a freelance article on ramps for NPR’s James Beard Award winning food blog, The Salt. I’d started noticing ramps trending on just about every food blog I read, with food writers waxing poetic about this seasonal, foraged, medicinal spring food. When a string of urban foodie buzzwords like “seasonal” and “foraged” are clustered together around one supposed “superfood,” I become suspicious, especially when said food is selling for $15 a pound.
So I did my research. If you want the full story, read my article. But if you want the quick and dirty, here it is: don’t eat ramps. Or if you must, enjoy them once in the season as a special treat. Harvests are not sustainable and the rising demand for ramps is wiping out what was once an abundant supply.
When I was writing this article, I would have vivid dreams at night about jungles of ramps with their wide, verdant leaves growing to my waist. I’d gather armfuls of them, carry them back to town, then wake up craving their bitter, garlic flavor in my mouth. Ramps certainly have an otherwordly allure to them. They only grow in shady forests for a few weeks of the year, then sprout their fairy flowers and disappear as quickly as they came. And they also have deep roots in Appalachian and Native communities and are interwoven with local traditions and ritual.
I think part of this surge of urban interest in ramps is part of our collective nostalgia for a country life we might never have had. But sometimes, when we try to reclaim something that was never ours to begin with, we unintentionally end up sowing the seeds for its destruction.
On these balmy spring evenings in DC, when the humid swamp air is starting to creep in and the hazy light lingers past 8 pm, I open the windows wide, light a candle, and crack open the spine on one of my new herbal healing books. I’ve gently alluded to this in a past post, but this year I am devoting a great deal of my time to nurturing my own self-healing practice. This includes all kinds of natural healing methods – herbal allies, cooking with the moon, physical exercise, and setting aside time every evening for deep relaxation with a book, maybe my tarot cards, and a cup of calming tea. The result of this practice is that I am in power of my own health and well-being, rather than dis-ease and stress managing my body and mind for me.
But the most rewarding element of this practice is learning! I am actively and consciously acquiring new knowledge from books, yes, but also from an incredible community of other magic womyn who are walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Three of these womyn are Summer, Rhae and Sarah of The Great Kosmic Kitchen, originally swamp witches of Florida but now scattered across the country studying herbal medicine and living their dreams at The California School of Herbal Studies and the Tassajara Zen Center. These ladies are the real deal, and I’m endlessly inspired by their gorgeous writing, recipes, photos, and drawings on their blog.
We haven’t met in person (yet!) but Summer, Rhae and Sarah graciously agreed to share some of their wisdom on wildcrafting herbs with us through a guest blog post. Enjoy!
Over many moons these powerful plants have lain dormant. They have waited for just the right conditions to sprout. Now spring has come to awaken them, and is resurrecting potent medicine up into our earthly realm. Hello nettle, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion, yellow dock, sorrel. SPRING is finally here!
It is by no coincidence that these spring greens are highly nutritious and offer gentle cleansing. They come into our lives in perfect rhythm. Many ancient practices recognize the importance of spring cleansing, and boosting nutrition following winter dormancy. It is time to clean the body, make room for the new, and then–transform! Just as the plants do.
I try my best to honor our Earth, and for me a large part of this is living seasonally. This spring I have made a point to incorporate more wild foods into my diet, which brings healing, lessens my dependence on our inept agricultural system, helps the wallet, and most importantly… brings me closer to our Mamma.
So this post is an ode to the plants.
Dandelions breaking through the concrete as we hurry into the grocery store; yellow dock growing on the side of the highway; chickweed and cleavers vying for attention amongst our meticulously cultivated heirloom greens. There is an abundance of medicine all around us. We just have to know what to look for!
When Jess approached us about collaborating we were so excited, and instantly thought of wild foods. They are the perfect blend of medicine and nourishing food, which is something all of us witches love. I urge you to use this guide in combination with a local plant I.D. book. I have found plant I.D. books in many used bookstores, thrift stores, and county libraries. I suggest to do some research of your own to find out all the yummy things that grow wild in your region. Until then, here are some beauties that grow abundantly across America, maybe even in your own yard.
Relatively short plants that are a few feet tall. The leaves are a bit curly and dark green.
Parts used: Root.
Traditional use: Anemia, skin diseases, and liver congestion.
*I have gotten to know the root as gentle laxative that can be used for a few days (or weeks) to get you back into your rhythm. The taste is quite bitter, and the plant promotes downward flow through the body.
The greens are rich in vitamins C and A, and many minerals. A super nutritious green that is found all across America. Very young green tops of dock are perfect to mix in with other leafy greens for salads, herbal pesto, or a light sauté.
A perennial green that can grow short, or human size! They have opposite pairs of leaves, which are coarsely veined. Usually the bottom of the oblong-heart shaped leaves has fuzzy fine stingers at the bottom. It is a feisty plant that stings so make sure to wear gloves when harvesting!
Parts used: Leaves.
Traditional use: Anemia, urinary inflammation, and general weakness. A deeply nourishing tonic.
*Nettle is such a gift. When taken over time it seems to help almost anyone. Nettles work well on so many people and conditions because it is so deeply nourishing. Nettle is perfect in pesto, teas, and spanakopita! The whirl of a blender, a light sauté, and the warmth of an infusion will be just enough heat to take its sting away.
A low growing deeply green plant, that shoots up from the middle with a long stem that creates beautiful yellow flowers. In modern times dandelion has become famous by “Round Up” ads, which promote herbicides to eradicate the beauty!
Parts used: Whole plant.
Traditional use: Alterative, diuretic, bitter, and as a tonic.
*This “weed” is one of the most nourishing foods we have, and it’s in our lawns! It is high in vitamins A and C, and contains calcium, iron, and magnesium too! Dandelion has a long history of keeping people fed through hard times. Dandelion stimulates the liver, gets the bile moving, and then cleanses the hepatic system. It is an amazing diuretic, eating too many leaves will definitely send you to the bathroom. Dandelion greens are perfect in a bitter greens salad, and the root would do well in a tonic soup or roasted for tea!
Parts used: Aerial parts.
Traditional use: Diuretic, alterative, and as a spring cleanser.
*I can’t get enough of these rowdy plants! They grow abundantly in our garden here at The California School of Herbal Studies, and love to go for rides on our clothing. Cleavers are a wonderful cleanser to the lymphatic system, and is a cooling herb that can be used to treat heat. Very effective when juiced (though it takes a lot of them), as a succus, a tincture, and very yummy infused in vinegar for salads!
Covers the ground in green masses with little white star-like flowers.
Parts used: Aerial parts.
Traditional use: Demulcent, alterative, and a gentle cleanser.
*Chickweed is another potherb with a mild flavor. The young tender greens are also used mixed in with salads and juices. Its demulcent properties make the plant soothing to the body. The weed can be used externally fresh as a poultice for many common skin issues.
All of these herbs are best fresh, this one particularly so. If you would like to save it, make a tincture for internal use, or maceration in olive oil for topical treatment of skin irritations and for salad dressings!
A note on ethical wild crafting.
I have chosen herbs that are abundant in our lawns and many natural areas. Because of this, I don’t know if I would consider this wild crafting. But as we are all growing and feeling called to the wild it is important that we harvest abundance. As we branch out and collect wild foods it is important to know that the areas we collect from are abundant, and have not been treated with harmful chemicals. Before doing any wild crafting I try to get to know the area, and research the status of the plants on United Plant Savers website. Be sure to ask the landowners and the plant if it is okay for you to harvest. Many of us plant people like to make an offering to the plants, a strand of hair, some dried tobacco, a song, whatever you feel called to do.
Writing by Summer Ashley, art created by the lovely Rhae Dawn Royal, and spiritual support from our third witch Sarah Benjamin.
Like usual, Mom was outside, dressed in her well-loved shorts and bleached baseball cap, dirt rimming her fingernails and staining her knees. She was in a fierce battle with the crabgrass and wild spring onions that threatened to choke her irises and rose of sharon. When she called out, I ran to the front of the house, the beach-house-now-full-time-house on a quiet street in downtown Chincoteague Island. Beneath a bush by the front stoop, she had found an abandoned nest of near a dozen duck eggs.
Mallard ducks are as common on Chincoteague as seagulls, owning the streets like royalty. Cars are fully expected to stop in the middle of the road for duck crossings, which are frequent, especially this time of year during mating season. We weren’t sure why a mama mallard would abandon her eggs, but one egg was cracked – maybe a predator got to it then gave up? But this predator was not giving up so quickly. I grabbed a bowl and filled it up, eight eggs in all.
To test if they were rotten or good to eat, I submerged them in water. None floated, good to go. I packed them up and brought them back home to DC on Sunday night.
Upon returning home and sharing my news with my boyfriend, O, he asked me the question I hadn’t thought to ask. How do you know there aren’t baby chicks inside?
At first, I laughed at his question. Oh, O. You don’t know anything, silly man. And then, in shock, I realized I didn’t know the answer either. Because they didn’t float?
After some research, I found out that you could hold an egg to a bright light, a process called candling, to determine whether an egg had been fertilized yet or not and if an embryo was growing inside. If the egg showed veins or redness, it was not okay to eat. However, if it appeared clear, it was safe. But are fertilized eggs okay to eat? Or can you only eat unfertilized eggs? What makes an egg rotten, anyway? How do other people gather wild eggs and know they’re safe?
I rapidly recognized how ignorant I was about avian reproduction and the origins of the eggs we consume daily.
After my candling experiment, all of my eggs appeared safe and chick-free, so I set out to make a decadent-sounding duck egg pasta. I also had a few duck eggs in my fridge that I’d previously acquired from the farmer’s market as back-up. Since duck eggs have thicker shells than chicken eggs, they also stay fresher longer – another plus, I thought, when cooking with wild eggs.
I cracked open the first egg. The yolk was large and orange, chock-full of vitamins and nutrients. The egg’s white seemed a little thin, but otherwise okay.
I cracked open the second egg, and the inside stuck to the shell. Out came a gelatinous, pink goo. Quietly, reservedly, I freaked out and subsequently threw the rest of the wild duck eggs in the trash. I then allowed myself a proper, very vocal expression of disgust, took a deep breath, and pulled the farmer’s market duck eggs out from the fridge.
Then I made this pasta. I think I’ll keep the egg production to the pros for now.
If you’ve only ever eaten chicken eggs, I highly encourage you to seek out duck eggs and give them a chance. Duck eggs have twice the nutritional value of a chicken egg, are rich in Omega-3s, and are actually alkaline-producing, a great health benefit for a variety of ailments. (Chicken eggs, in contrast, are acidic.) The albumen in the eggs also makes baked goods especially fluffy, so I’m eager to substitute them for chicken eggs in my next cake.
I’ve made pasta a few times before, but never anything quite like this. The resulting pasta is smooth and silky with a subtle flavor of egg. It was especially delicious with pesto, one I brought home from the food swap with sweet peas and mint. For garnish, I scattered on some parmesan shavings. Enjoy with a glass of tart white wine and ta-da! Quite possibly the best spring supper ever.
duck egg pasta
1 1/2 cups white flour (or 00 flour, or farina di grano tenero, if you can find it)
2 duck eggs
semolina flour, for dusting
Pour the flour on the counter. Make a well in the center and crack two eggs into it.
Use a fork to beat the eggs. Slowly use the fork to incorporate the flour bit by bit into the eggs.
Make a spiral with the egg and flour and whisper your magic into it.
When you can no longer use the fork to blend the dough because it’s too thick, flour your hands and start bringing the dough together with your hands.
Bring the dough into a ball and knead it for 8-10 minutes until it’s silky and smooth to the touch.
Pat the dough into a 1-inch disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Rest at room temperature or the fridge for 1 hour.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece out separately. Roll each ball as thin as possible (but not too thin), keeping the reserved dough covered with a towel to keep it fresh.
Dust the sheets lightly with semolina flour to keep the pasta from sticking to itself. With a sharp knife, cut the pasta sheets into noodles. Keep in mind that the pasta will expand slightly when cooked, so thinner is better. Store cut noodles beneath a towel.
If not using the pasta right away, swirl the pasta into individually-portioned “nests.” Freeze the nests in a freezer-safe ziploc bag for up to two months.
Cook pasta in boiling, salted water for 3-5 minutes until al dente. Drain and toss with pesto and freshly shaved parmesan.
Near the tip of the Eastern Shore, that tongue of land that juts down the side of the Chesapeake Bay, there sits a small barrier island nestled between salt marshes and the sea. Until relatively recently, Chincoteague Island was home to oyster fishermen, wild ponies, ice cream parlors and not much else. My family has been spending summers here since I was about five or six years old, and my parents moved here less than a year ago.
I’ve been spending a lot of weekends here lately. One such weekend was in celebration of my mother’s birthday.
It’s been so long since I’ve made an honest-to-goodness, classic birthday cake, and my mom deserved something worthy of a goddess. (For those who’ve met my mom, you know what I’m talking about.) When I found Smitten Kitchen’s strawberry “pink lady” cake, I knew I’d found the winner. Seasonal, not overly sweet, and pretty pink.
Since strawberries are starting to come into season, we opted for fresh fruit rather than frozen. You puree the strawberries and swirl them into the batter, which tastes like a butter cake with just a hint of fruit. If you have any leftover strawberry puree, mix it with some sugar, water, and freshly squeezed lime juice to make an agua fresca.
Since I think a buttercream would have been too heavy for this rich cake, I used a thick whipped cream to frost it instead. To top it off, I sprinkled on some homemade pink sprinkles that my gal Maddie made. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could try your hand at making sprinkles too, recipe here.
strawberry celebration cake
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
3 cups white flour
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup freshly pureed strawberries
5 egg whites
1/2 cup milk
1 T pure vanilla extract
red dye (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter two 9″ round cake pans, and cut out pieces of parchment paper to fit into the bottom of the pans. Butter those too.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a smaller bowl, beat the butter and strawberry puree together until smooth. Add the strawberry/butter mixture to the flour mixture, and beat with an electric mixer for 2-3 minutes until fully incorporated. The batter will be very thick.
In another medium bowl, beat the egg whites, milk, and red dye (if using) until frothy. Add this mixture to the rest of the batter in 2 additions, beating well after each incorporation.
Pour the batter into the two prepared cake pans and smooth the tops with a spatula or knife. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before icing.
For the frosting, beat whipping cream with some sugar with an electric mixer until stiff, or opt for your favorite buttercream. Sprinkle some pink sugar or sprinkles on top.
There is something deeply satisfying about cutting into a salad with a knife. I was turned on to knife and fork salads when I dined with Clementina of Open Door Dining, a supper club in DC hosted unceremoniously in her living room on a long barn table. Clementina is Italian through and through, from the fashionable heels she wears to the marinara she’s mastered. Her food is fresh, deceivingly simple and full of robust flavor.
When I was welcomed into her home for Easter dinner, she prepared baked ziti with fried eggplant; roasted beet salad; frittata with sunchokes; a knife and fork salad with dandelion greens and seared radicchio; and a ricotta grain pie. This salad is my go at a simple knife and fork salad, and can be easily adapted with whatever you feel compelled to throw in – pickled onions, sliced figs, maybe a fried egg. I’m a fan of the bite that early spring greens bring to a salad, especially when paired with sweet late winter citrus, like cara cara oranges or grapefruit wedges.
knife + fork bitter green salad with citrus
half a bunch of mixed bitter greens, like dandelion greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, or beet greens
one cara cara orange
small block of parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
white balsamic fig-infused vinegar
squeeze of meyer lemon juice
sea salt and pepper
Cut the woody ends off your greens. Slice them into 4 inch lengths. Throw them in a big bowl and dress with oil, lemon juice, vinegar, minced garlic, a pinch of sea salt (you can always add more) and a liberal dash of freshly crushed pepper. Using your hands, massage the greens for a minute or so, until the leaves have softened but not wilted completely. Really get into it – don’t be shy about kneading those green babies into massaged bliss!
Split your greens on two plates.
Peel your orange, removing the white pith completely. Slice the orange into 6-8 slices. Scatter half of the oranges on each plate. Shave your parmesan with a sharp knife or the side of your cheese grater. Dress your salads with the parmesan. Eat immediately with a knife and fork.
When I tell people about how I’ve really gotten into spinning lately, I’m not referring to stationary bikes. I’m talking about spinning raw wool (also known as “roving” or “fleece”) into yarn for knitting and crocheting.
My Polish great grandma learned to knit on a pair of nails when she was a small girl. She taught me to knit on a set of teal, size 8 plastic needles when I was in the seventh grade while sitting on her plush blue couch watching soaps and The Weather Channel, and I’ve been knitting ever since. Sometimes, I’ll go months without picking up a project, and other times I’ll plow through patterns in a few short weeks.
Unlike other art mediums like drawing or watercolor painting, knitting is very physical. My fingers navigate the fiber textures and soak in the energy of the sun and grass that the sheep enjoyed. The practice can be both a solitary or social act, satisfying in both respects. As an opportunity for social gathering, knitting and its products have a long and fascinating history laden with symbology, ritual, and cultural significance in communities across the globe. For this gal, who’s a geek for studying the intersections of religion, anthropology, and environment, reading about fiber arts and contributing to this very old practice is a pure love.
My aunt is a fiber artist herself, weaving gorgeous fabrics on her enormous loom and taking me along for spinning and dying classes in the California desert years ago. I fell in love with spinning then, but without the resources to continue the practice, I let it fall by the wayside. Recently, I attended a refresher course with a friend in Maryland, and I am now certifiably addicted. Above is just half of the raw wool fleece of an Icelandic sheep that we jointly ordered from a farm in Minnesota and are actively spinning into skeins of yarn.
Below is my second skein of yarn of all time, full of twists and kinks, thick and thin. Compare this skein to the yarn on the spindle pictured above, which has a much more consistent “weight,” or thickness. Spinning reliably consistent yarn has a big learning curve, but it’s like learning to ride a bike – once you pick it up, your body remembers. Washing the completed skein removes the lingering oils from the wool and relaxes these kinks and curls from the fiber.
After washing the yarn, I hang it to dry on my back porch, allowing the fibers to relax completely and “set the twist.”
Once the yarn is completely dry, I twist it into a skein until it’s ready to be dyed with some luscious color or to be knit as-is. I’m scheming some plans for exploring natural dyes this summer, but for now, here is the final product.
Are any of you spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, or fiber artists of all trades? I would love to hear about what resources you’ve found valuable and any tips or tricks you have for us newbies.
The summer after I graduated college, I lived in the spare room of my friend A’s house in West Hollywood, working at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica and volunteering at a Middle Eastern cultural center in Hollywood. I graduated in 2009, the year after the financial crash, and the “real job” that I felt I’d been promised if I worked hard, got good grades, and landed solid internships, just wasn’t materializing. I applied to over 100 jobs and was rejected for a Fulbright before I finally decided to up and move across the country in October and try my luck in DC.
And as you know, that story has a happy ending.
Although I felt uncertain and frustrated about my future prospects that summer, I also knew that it was a very precious period of time. I wasn’t tied down by obligations, family, or a boyfriend, and I dreamed of moving to Indonesia – just because I could. My friends and I would gather in our backyard for tarot readings and barbecues beneath the climbing bougainvillea. My graduation present was a bike, and after my car broke down for good, I’d navigate the wide, hilly streets of LA on my black and cream Jamis coda.
I was just learning to cook well – beyond my hitherto diet of stir-fries and cookies – and my bakery gig with the free croissants, baguettes, and fruit galettes offered ample inspiration. We had a meyer lemon tree and a beautiful fig tree in the backyard, and that summer A and I collected bowls and bowls of fruit that would adorn the tables, bookshelves, and kitchen counters like statuary.
We started experimenting with our abundance, making lemon bars and lemon curd and a fig preserve. I didn’t know how to put up anything, so there were no Moroccan preserved lemons or canned jars of figs lined up in a row. Instead, we would take our simple jam and store it in the fridge.
It was during this summer that I stumbled upon Sue Dickman’s essay about her summer after college in The Washington Post. In it, she included a recipe for the rhubarb ginger jam she and her girlfriends would make during her own precious post-college summer. That article hit me then and it hits me now with its honesty and relevance, and A and I took her recipe and made gobs of it. It was very, very good.
But after that summer, I never made that jam again.
Skip ahead a few years, and I’ve unearthed Sue’s recipe from the depths of the internet and adapted it for my current tastes. Instead of crystallized ginger, I’ve used fresh, and I’ve added lemon juice for acidity so it can be properly preserved as a shelf-stable jam. I’ve also added seeds from a scraped vanilla bean to lend a mellow, smooth note to this overall spicy and tart jam, but it’s by no means a necessity if you don’t have a vanilla bean lying around.
This jam holds so many memories for me, and it’s so very good, that it’s probably my all-time favorite jam. Enjoy!
rhubarb ginger jam with vanilla bean
3 1/2 lbs. rhubarb, chopped into 1” slices
3 1/2 cups sugar
zest of one organic lemon (scrub the lemon HARD if it’s not organic to get off the wax)
juice of 2 lemons
3 inch knob of ginger, peeled and minced
seeds of 1 scraped vanilla bean
Combine everything in a big witchy pot. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat, then reduce to simmer and cook down for 30 minutes plus, until the jam mounds on a spoon. My jam took about an hour. Continue stirring and don’t be tempted to raise the heat, or else it will burn. This jam won’t really pass the wrinkle test like other jams, but still try sticking it in the freezer on a cold plate for 1 minute to gauge if it’s at the consistency you like.
When the jam is thick to your liking, ladle it into hot, sterilized jars, wiping the rims before sealing.
Process half-pint jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, remove, and cool undisturbed for 24 hours. Refrigerate all jars that didn’t seal.
Makes 6+ half pint jars.