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I’ve gotten into the bad habit of starting to write posts and not getting them finished. Here’s one I started in the winter and am adapting to the spring.

I’m talking about chickweed ;-)

Some people think chickweed’s a nuisance, but really this is such a superb food and medicine that not only do I encourage it in my garden, I am also this year growing some in a pot. Chickweed is one of those plants that responds to being eaten by growing back lushly as quickly as possible. So if you cut it with a pair of scissors, then you will get another crop, and another etc until it manages to go to seed before you get to it. But once it seeds you can start again. Very lucky people have abundant chickweed in their garden, and can harvest most of the year. If you grow miner’s lettuce as well you can replace regular lettuce entirely for many months of the year, and be getting much better nutrition (chickweed is much more densely nutritious than lettuce).

Chickweed ID

Chickweed is a low growing annual, most notable in moist, damp places. There aren’t too many plants it can be mistaken for, mostly the mouse ear chickweed which is furry. Here’s an excellent photo of the edible chickweed, with ID labels from Wildman Steve Brill:

chickweed ID ~ Steve Brill

There’s no seed in that picture, but the seed capsules look similar to the ovoid flower buds.

Growing Chickweed

You need some seed. The easiest way to get this is off a late growth plant. Chickweed seeds quite quickly after flowering and usually has flowers and seeds at the same time. Here’s some chickweed that is flowering and seeding. It’s a bit straggly especially on the ends, and the stalks are more visible at this stage. If you open up one of the small capsules you’ll find an orange seed in side.

If you want to save some seed, put the whole above ground plant in a plastic bag and store it in the fridge. If there’s lots of seed it will drop out into the bottom of the bag. The last time I tried this, it didn’t work (there wasn’t much seeding, and maybe it was too early), but impressively the plant itself lasted a good month in the fridge and then when I put it out at the back door it started growing again.

But if you have seeding plants, you don’t need to remove the seeds individually, you can just use the whole top of the plant to grow some more.

I often get chickweed growing in pot plants (because I use garden soil in my potting mix) but if you don’t have any in your garden already you can usually find it in the wild.

I’ve not grown it intentionally in a pot before, so here’s my trial system. I got an old fridge box from the recycle centre. Because it was mid winter I kept this on the porch, and so I didn’t drill any holes in it. I’ve been keeping an eye on the watering so it doesn’t get waterlogged but chickweed does like a moist situation (and shady in the summer, it doesn’t like to get too hot). I filled the box with some soil and compost, and divided it into three sections:

The bottom one is a layer of chopped, seeding chickweed. The middle is the same, but with a layer of soil on top. The top one is empty (despite a few leaves). Originally I was going to sow this with seed from the fridge, but it’s ended up being the ‘control’. If I’m really lucky I’ll get some interesting other salad weeds appearing in a timely fashion. I planted this out at the start of June.

8 weeks later and it looks like this:

And at another 2 weeks later, ready to eat:

As you can see, the middle section, which was chopped seeding chickweed covered in soil, has done the best. The bottom section, where the chopped weed was uncovered is only just starting to grow, and the top section (nothing sown in it) has nothing growing in it (damn, but I might get lucky with the longer days and spring arriving).

That was quite slow for chickweed, being over the coldest months. Inside I’m sure it would grow faster. In less cold places, I’ve grown and eaten chickweed during the winter, spring and autumn. If you want to in the summer you need somewhere shady and moist.

The chickweed is now growing fast and is covering 2/3rds of the box. I can harvest about twice a week. I’ve been watering and feeding occasionally with worm whisky.

Chickweed as food and medicine

Chickweed is at its best raw. Use abundantly in salads, or chop onto grain dishes as a garnish. Chickweed pesto is famous on weedy circles. Johanna Knox has some other great ideas about eating chickweed.

The taste of chickweed varies a bit, maybe because it has so much water in it that it’s more affected by growing conditions. Generally it is bland, slightly salty and fresh with a slight bitter taste at the end – basically a standard green. When it’s older it gets stronger.

It has pretty decent amounts of minerals and vitamins, making it a good food for increasing nutrients in the diet. It also has a range of medicinal offerings and is especially good at cooling overheated conditions. Chickweed extracts well into alcohol (for medicine), vinegar (for nutrition), oil (for external use) and spit (also for external use but ingesting is good too).

This post is part of the UK Herbarium June Blog Party My Favourite Tree Medicines, kindly hosted by Lucinda at Whispering Earth.

I think I might be in love.

I picked some hawthorns at Easter and set them out to dry. In the past week I’ve been experimenting with water based preparations to find the best way to use the dried berries. I’ve been using hawthorn berry tincture for a few years, off and on, but had never worked with the dried berries.

At Easter I also started an experiment to see if I could make fruit leather, but the resultant mash (fresh berries simmered in minimal water long and slow, and then pressed through a sieve) was so unappetising that I froze it until I can figure out what to do with it. Hawthorn berry tincture has such a delightful taste that I was sure the fruit leather would be a go if I could get it to dry properly. The berries themselves are pleasant enough tasting especially now that they’ve had a few frosts to sweeten them up, but there must be something about heat that changes the taste.

So I was curious to see what would happen with my newly dried berries. First I made some tea – a tablespoon of berries steeped in a cup of just boiled water for 20 or 30 minutes. The result was pale, bland and not particularly inspiring. The berries are very hard when dried, so I figured they needed more heat to cause the cell walls to break and release all the goodies. A few more experiments and I’ve settled on this:

Hawthorn decoction

1. put 3 tablespoons/30gm hawthorn berries in a suitable pot (I use an old coffee pot because it’s easy to pour from).

2. add 500 ml cold water and put on the lid.

3. put on a slow heat and bring to a simmer. Don’t boil, as this will release the more bitter flavours and probably destroy some of the vitamins.

4. simmer for as long as you like, or can wait – 30 minutes is fine but I’ve left it on a very slow heat for an hour or more.

5. drink as is, or allow to infuse in the pot for as long as it takes you to use it up. I’m currently making 4 cups at a time and letting it infuse for several days before the last cup is drunk.

This brew is rich, oily and satisfying*. It has an initial distinct sweetness, quickly followed by the kind of tartness that is associated with vitamin C (similar to its cousin the rosehips). There are undertones of bitter.

* I’ve just looked this up and it’s not oily so much as soapy – hawthorn berries contain saponins, chemicals that make things slippery.

Harvesting and Drying

One of the things I love about hawthorn is that it is so abundant. Both in terms of berries on the tree, and trees in the landscape.

This is a herb that we can harvest with relative ease and in many places there is so much hawthorn we can harvest large amounts. This is necessary for making nourishing type infusions that use a lot of herb to brew. But it’s also reminds us that even in the depths of winter the land has much to offer. Hawthorn often grows on land where not much else does well, giving us a gnarly nourishment. Because of its abundance and ability to grow in marginal places and because it offers strong but safe medicine as well as nutrition, I consider it one of our important wild plants in terms of powerdown and transition to a post-oil life. Hawthorn will of course also grow happily in a garden, and is a common tree in hedgerows in the UK – there are hedges of hawthorn in NZ, but I’m not sure if it’s used in mix hedgerows much here.

For harvesting the berries, I take a basket and a pair of scissors or garden snips. At this time of year there are no leaves and so the berries are easier to take off the branches. You can usually snap off a cluster from its branch, sometimes I use the snips.

At home I then cut the berries off the small stalks. I think the stalks are fine to be used in the decoction, but the berries will dry better if not in clusters. You can cut the berries off easily in bunches, being careful to not cut the berries themselves. I then lay them in a single layer on a cane tray to dry, giving the tray a shuffle once a day or so to turn the berries and make sure they dry evenly.

You could also leave the berries in their clusters and hang them over a line. Either way they need to be somewhere warm and dry.

The last batch seemed to take a long time to dry – more than a month. The berries have a dry-ish texture so I wonder if it’s the thickness of the skin that makes them take a while to dry. The current batch are bigger than last time, presumably because we’ve had so much rain. I’ve weighed them to see how much water has evaporated once they have dried.

I’m drinking hawthorn because the taste is lovely and because I want a warming digestive* breakfast drink on these cold winter mornings. I find the brew relaxing, almost sedative, having a general feeling of opening. I’m also happy that the decoction will be yielding significant amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients including bioflavonoids. And I like that hawthorn is a safe heart tonic, so it will be promoting good heart health in my middle years.

* that’s the sour and bitter tastes.

Resources

More things to do with hawthorn berries.

HerbTV’s video on Valentine’s Day herbs has some excellent information on hawthorn as medicine (US hawthorns look a bit different to ours, but are interchangeable medicinally and for food).

The thing about herbal vinegars is that they are not culinary vinegars. Culinary vinegars place a small amount of a strong smelling/tasting herb (eg tarragon) in vinegar in order to extract the taste. Herbal vinegars place a large amount of herb in vinegar for a long time in order to extract minerals, vitamins, and other goodies that you don’t get from culinary vinegars. They also taste and smell wonderful.

Herbal vinegars are both food and medicine. You can use them as a culinary vinegar too.

Instructions

This is the basic fill a jar twice method that I use for tinctures, vinegars, oils etc:

* fill the jar once with chopped herb
* then fill again with vinegar.
* stir to release air and put a tight lid on
* label with date, plant, source etc and leave six weeks before decanting

Some tips

* use a plastic lid. Metal lids rust when exposed to vinegar. Metal lids with that smooth lining seem to be ok, but will rust if the lining is scratched.

* I use apple cider vinegar (acv) because it tastes good, is easily accessible and is made in NZ from NZ apples. ACV has a long history of folk lore use for health and healing. You can use other food vinegars. I’m leery of the more commercial non-apple ones, because they seem industrial to me.

* you can use raw (unpasteurised) vinegar, or pasteurised vinegar. Raw vinegar will smell more like a fermented product, pasteurised will smell just like vinegar and the herb you infuse. I like raw vinegar because it’s a live culture, but pasteurised is fine too. With raw vinegar you have less leeway – it is more likely to go off if you leave it too long or the plant sticks up above the vinegar. I don’t think I’ve ever had pasteurised go off. If you have problems with raw vinegar, try pasteurised until you get the hang of it and then try the raw again.

* put the infusing jar on a plate or other container to catch any seepage. Top up the vinegar as needed (check every day to start with, then once a week). It’s important that the herb stays completely submerged beneath the vinegar to prevent mould forming.

* some vinegars will form a ‘mother’ (in a decanted vinegar this will be a floating mass). This is part of the fermentation process and isn’t a problem.

What to do with herbal vinegar

* use it as a mineral supplement

* put it on salads or grains for a tasty, nourishing treat. Vinegar (along with salt and fat) aids digestion and increases availability of the nutrients in your meal.

* put 1 tablespoon in a glass of water and drink

* herbal vinegars can be used externally for medicinal compresses or soaks.

* some herbal vinegars make lovely cosmetics – I use lavender or elderflower dilute for a hair rinse.

* herbal vinegars are also good to clean with. Choose herbs that are antiseptic like pine, lavender, thyme, rosemary etc.

* herbal vinegars can be used as medicine. People that can’t take alcohol based tinctures sometimes use vinegar as a menstruum instead. Vinegar extracts different things from plants than alcohol (some medicinal herbs were traditionally extracted into vinegar instead of alcohol because of this), so they’re not direct substitutes, but vinegar and herbs in vinegar do have their own healing powers.

Brigitte has one of the best tutorials I’ve seen on making the vinegar itself.

Which herbs?

The list of plants you can put up in vinegar is almost endless – if you can eat a plant then you can probably make herbal vinegar from it.

Warning: there is a kind of bug you get when you make herbal vinegars, where you end up putting up every interesting plant you come across. Be prepared by hoarding jars and assigning extra storage space in your cupboards.

Here’s some of my favourites:

From left to right:

1. dandelion blossom ~ made in the spring from the flowers, but you can use any or all parts of the dandelion.

2. yellow dock root ~ I prefer yellow dock seed vinegar, but missed the ripe seeds this year. The root is best harvested once the plant has died back and after the frosts have started. Rumex crispus (yellow or curly dock) or R obtusifolia (broad leafed dock) are both fine for seed or root. I’ve not done the leaf, but am sure it would be interesting.

3. elderberry ~ berries might still available in some areas (just) if you get to them before the birds. Elderflower is a beautiful vinegar too, I like it for a hair rinse.

4. milkthistle/variegated thistle leaf ~ this should be around at the moment too.

5. plantain ~ best picked when leaf is lush and before seeding. I haven’t done this but I suspect you also could use the whole plant (leaf, seed and root, depending on the time of year). Both varieties are fine, this one was the broad leafed one. I love the subtle, dusky pink colour.

6. hawthorn berry ~ a good one to make up now. Leaf and flower in the spring would be good too.

7. fennel seed ~ also an autumn vinegar. I’ve made leaf vinegar in the past too, but prefer the stronger seed brew.

8. fat hen ~ I made this in summer from the whole above ground parts (leaf, stalk, seed). I was a bit sceptical about it, thinking it might be a bit boring, but it’s now one of my favourites.

9. shiitake ~ an imported plant! I make this from dried shiitake stalks left over from using whole shiitake mushrooms in cooking. Shiitake is an excellent immune assistant, and this vinegar is one of the tastiest.

10. feijoa ~ another import for down here but up North they’ll be ripe soon. I made this originally to see if the delightful fragrance of feijoa persisted (it does but mildly). I used the skins (because the fruity pulp had to be eaten), but if you had alot you could make some with the whole chopped fruit.

11. dandelion root ~ late autumn or winter vinegar (after the frosts and before the plant puts on its spring growth). The white colour is from the inulin in the root, a complex sugar that has many health benefits [link]

If you’re completely insane you can make Fire Cider.

Further reading on herbal vinegars and minerals:

A good overview from Black Toad herbals on which herbs have what vitamins and minerals in them.

Susun Weed’s articles on making herbals vinegars and which plants make good mineral supplements.

Brigitte’s post on Herbal Minerals has a list of minerals, some of their functions, and the herbs they can be found in. You could make herbal vinegar from most of those.

My Mum taught me this the other day. I had badly scratched a wooden table (pine, so easily done). She got a piece of walnut and rubbed it on the scratch, which made the scratch blend in with the surrounding wood stain.

The other thing she taught me was to clean windows with just a few sheets of newspaper. I’d always cleaned with soapy water, rinsed with clean water, and then dried off with newspaper, but this new method is so much easier.

Scrunch up a sheet of newspaper and run it under the tap.

Squeeze it out a bit so it’s not dripping.

Use this to clean the window. You need a bit of pressure, but if you just go over the window well a few times it removes pretty much everything including flyspots. Don’t clean frames this way as the ink leaves black marks.

Check the window for smears by looking from the side.

Get a second piece of newspaper, scrunched up and dry the window. This is important as water that dries on the window leaves marks.

Put the newspaper in the compost, wormfarm or garden.

I love low tech solutions that don’t require buying anything or having waste afterwards.

Here’s another one from Brigitte: a broom broom.

This post is part of the UK Herbarium webring blog party, which has kindly been opened up to Commonwealth bloggers too (I love this because many of the introduced plants here in New Zealand come from the UK). Apologies to the Brits though, who won’t have access to artichokes for 6 months. The theme of the blog party is My Favourite Bitter.

Bitters are a class of herb with a bitter taste and distinct actions on the digestive tract, especially the liver and gallbladder. Amongst other things, bitter stimulates production of bile and assists the liver and gallbladder to function well (see further reading at the end of this post for a fuller explanation of bitters).

There is a long history of the use of bitters as medicine – Swedish Bitters would be the most well known example of historical use that survives today. There is also a tradition of eating bitters as part of the everyday diet. Modern peoples lose out here, because we are so un-attuned to the bitter taste that apart from coffee, and maybe dark chocolate (which is tempered substantially by sugar), bitter is often a shunned experience.

Yet bitters are essential to good health, even more so nowadays when we have so many refined foods in our diets that are hard on the body. I also think our incredibly easy access to sugar skews our tastes away from enjoying bitter, but fortunately the more bitter you eat the better it tastes. I want to emphasise here that eating bitters becomes a pleasurable experience, it’s not something you have to force yourself to do.

You don’t have to eat bitter foods in huge amounts – the value of bitter foods can be gained from small amounts, especially if eaten regularly. And depending on the plant in question a lot of bitter can be counter productive (herbally many bitters can be cooling to the body or drying, which doesn’t suit everyone, and strong bitters can be hard on sensitive constitutions). It’s better to eat a small dandelion leaf daily in season than try eating a cup of cooked dandelion greens in one go that you have to force down and that makes you avoid bitters for the rest of the year!

If you’re not used to bitters then start small and find ways to introduce them into your diet that feel good.

One traditional way of eating bitters is by including them in salads. Another way is to eat seasonal vegetables and herbs that have some bitter in them. My favourite is the globe artichoke, which is a great way to learn about the bitter taste because it is such delicious eat.

The leaf of the whole plant is used as a strong bitter in herbal medicine but fortunately the vegetable itself is a more subtle bitter and very edible.

Normally artichokes surface before Christmas (southern hemisphere) but I didn’t find any this year until I went grocery shopping today. Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus aka Cynara scolymus) are a thistle and no relation of the artichokes that are a root vegetable. They’re customary fare in parts of Europe, especially Italy and France. They grow easily in NZ, and often you see them on the edge of people’s properties, where they have been planted as a showy border plant (they’re big and spectacular when flowering). I find most people are really happy to let you pick them.

The edible part is the flower bud. You want buds that look fresh (not drying out on the tips too much) and haven’t started to open. This is a medium sized bud. Some varieties have sharper points on the scales.

There are quite a few different varieties, some yummier than others – you’ve just got to find this out by experience, but generally the ones in the shops are a sure thing, the ones on the side of the road vary more. Usually the issue is about the work to edible part ratio (explained in a minute).

Some people get put off artichokes because there is some work involved in getting to the edible bits. But the preparation and pulling apart of the artichoke is part of the whole experience. I’m going to write about the easiest way I know, because I’m basically a peasant foodie and am happy to eat well simply. There are lots more complex ways of preparing and eating artichokes (including raw), so once hooked you can explore those.

First take the artichoke and cut off any stalk close-ish to the bud. It’s nice to have a bit of stalk, but too much and the bud won’t stand up in the bowl. You can cook the extra stalk as well if it is still fresh, just put it in the pot with the bud. I like to bang the bud face down on a chopping board a few times to open up the ‘scales’. I then put the bud face down in a pot with a small amount of hot water (face down because the heat goes up into the inside of the bud). Bring to the simmer and let it cook with the lid on for 10 or 15 minutes. Test to see if it is done by using a sharp knife down through the centre near the stalk. It should slide in easily.

Take the bud out and let any excess water drain out from the inside. From this point on you need the following:

2 bowls
a sharp knife
a serviette
olive oil

Put the bud upright in the bowl. Open up the scales a bit and pour in some olive oil. Let this sit for awhile, so it cools enough to be handled and so the olive oil starts to take up the flavour. If you leave the bud to sit for a long time, the oil will get really tasty (and artichoke is fine to eat cold).

Once cool, start to pull off the scales, starting from the outside at the bottom. Each scale has a knob of flesh on it which is edible. You can dip this in the olive oil pooling at the bottom of the bowl, and then use your teeth to scrap off the fleshy bit. Put the empty scale in your spare bowl. A serviette is essential here, this is very hands on eating.

(some varieties of artichoke don’t have as much flesh on the leaves, and so it seems not worth the bother. But I find even the thin layer of some bud scales worth it because of the flavour and response in my body – a qualitative rather than quantitative experience).

One thing you can do here is taste the bud closer to the remaining stalk – there will be some stringy bits that pull off with the scale – and you can eat the stalk itself. There is a pleasant bitter taste here, which blends well with the more pungent sweet taste of the fleshy bit. If you get a sense of this bitter here you will pick it up in the rest of the choke too.

Continue eating the scales until most of them are gone. Now you are getting to the choke heart. You will start to notice two things. At the top the scales become thinner and sharper.

Just discard those, and underneath you will find a turret of densely packed hairs. These are completely inedible unless the bud is very very young. Use the sharp knife to cut through through the base of the hairy layer and discard it. You may need to cut the heart in half or quarters to get all of this off.

The top half still has hairs on it, the bottom is clean:

Now you are at the pinnacle of artichoke eating. You can take each half or quarter, dip in oil and eat whole.

Here is the true artichoke flavour and texture, the reason why people go to all the bother – a phenomenal mix of deep sweet, bitter and pungent*. By this stage I usually notice a pleasurable relaxation in my liver and solar plexus area, and complex tastes in my mouth and palate that last well after the last bite.

*although pungent isn’t the right word and I’m struggling to describe the taste. You find it to a lesser degree in related plants such as burdock and variegated thistle.

Because the eating of artichokes can be a bit of a ritual, they make a great food to share with a group of people. And because it’s a bitter, it serves well as an appetiser, stimulating appetite and digestion before the main course. Enjoy!

Further reading:

For a fancier look at how to prepare and eat artichokes, see Julie Biuso’s blogpost.

Great Lakes folk herbalist Jim Macdonald has an comprehensive article (PDF) on the importance and benefits of bitters as food and medicine.

More on bitters from the blog party.

Infused herbal oils are lovely. Often you get subtle but distinct scents to them, and they can be used for medicine and/or cosmetics.

Here’s how I made arnica oil yesterday.

Prepare your jar first. You want it clean and very dry. I wash a bunch of jars and then put them in the oven on a low temp for half an hour to get all moisture out of them. Moisture and oil and plant material usually equates to mould. Let the jar cool before making oil as hot glass and plant material also equals moisture which equals mould.

Pick the herb. Pick on a dry day where there has been no rain at all for at least 24 hours. Pick later in the day if there has been dew. Plants have some moisture in them, but moisture on the outside invariably leads to mould in the oil.

Chop the herb. Not entirely essential, depending on the herb, but I like to because it opens the plant to the oil, and because you get more plant into the jar therefore the oil is a bit stronger. I usually chop roughly, occasionally I chop finely or use a blender.

Fill the jar twice. Once with the herb, and then again with oil. I use olive oil because it is very stable and it’s good for the skin. Once the oil is in, use a chop stick or something to poke the plant to get as much air out as possible.

Cap and label. Put a lid on to keep out bugs. And label jar with date, plant and plant part, place of harvest, and type of oil.

Check the next day. Open it up to have a look, add more oil (usually the level has dropped because air has surfaced). The plant material must be cover in oil (or it will go mouldy).

Infuse 6 weeks. In a cool place out of direct sun (heat equals mould). That’s the length of time I was taught and I like it. The long time allows the plant to be extracted into the oil. Keep an eye on it, wiping any moisture from inside the lid and topping up oil as necessary.

Decant. I strain through a sieve, and then squeeze out in a cloth to get as much oil out of the plant as possible. You can let the decanted oil sit in a jar for a few days to see if any water settles on the bottom and then pour the oil off into a clean, dry bottle. Dark glass will keep the oil longer. Store in a cool, dark place.

Use and enjoy!

Having been given an eel and cleaned and gutted it, here’s how I cooked and ate it.

I was a bit worried because I’d heard varying reports on eating eel – from it being bland and rubbery to it being so strong you needed to cook it in certain ways to tone it down. I’m pleased to find it is both easy to cook and delicious!

One of the ethics for me in eating meat is a commitment to use as much as possible of the animal that has died to feed me. This is about valuing that animal’s life (and death) but it’s also about sustainable practice. If I can get three times more nutrients from this eel by eating all of it rather than just the ‘meat’, then I can take only one eel instead of three. Traditional cultures have always used the whole animal in some way, and many of the parts we throw out now are in fact the most nutritious.

I’d read and heard various techniques for skinning eels and the necessity of removing the slime from the outside of the skin. A couple of friends said they eat the skin, and one said she doesn’t deslime at all because she feels it’s part of the nutrition, so that’s what I went with. Fish skin is always so tasty, and it seemed like there was a good amount of oil in and just under the eel skin that I didn’t want to lose. I found the eel a bit slimey when handling it – don’t bother trying to wash your hands in water while cutting it up, use a towel to wipe your hands instead – but it wasn’t obvious in the cooking. I don’t know why people try and remove it, but then one of the attractions of eel for me is the large amount of fish oil – maybe some people don’t want that.

Cutting up the eel was a bit tricky – the skin still being tough, and the spine too. I’m sure technique is alot to do with it. I ended up cutting most of it into ‘steaks’ i.e. cutting across the body in cross section. I hadn’t bled the eel so there was a good chunk of blood along the spine still which I left in to cook:

I’d looked up some recipes for jellied eel and thought I’d try that because it seemed a good way of accessing the best nutrients in the eel. The long slow cooking in water would make it very digestible and ‘hold’ in all the goodies. First I melted some butter in the bottom of a casserole dish. Then I put in the steaks and sprinkled them with salt and a large handful of chopped fennel leaf. I just covered all this with water and added 3 tablespoons of chickweed vinegar (any good quality vinegar will do).

The oven was preheated to 170C. With the lid on I let it cook for about an hour.

The long slow cooking and the vinegar extract all the ‘jelly’ from the eel and once cooled it’s meant to be very jelly like. Mine wasn’t but I think it was because I used so much water. However it was very yummy, both the meat and the broth. The skin did indeed taste great, possibly an acquired texture for some but very edible. The meat was a bit chewy (cooking temperature could be a bit lower) although not rubbery, and the flesh fell apart easily making it very soupy. The spine as easy to pull out but there were some random wee bones which made for careful eating. I found it hard to see what was happening with the bones when cutting it up before cooking, so I need to learn how to fillet eel. It reheated well and I’ve frozen some to see how that goes.

I also froze some steaks raw, and all of the fat (need to figure out what to do with that and if it needs rendering). The liver I saut̩ed with onion. It was incredibly tender and very mild tasting Рmuch easier to eat than the liver from land animals.

I’m also having a go at drying some strips of eel, but it’s an experiment as I’ve never dried meat before. I’d tried taking out the bones, not very well I’m afraid. But the spine and head and gill section of the body all went into a big pot to make stock. I added a large roughly chopped onion (skin on) and a couple of chopped carrots, covered it well with water and set it on a slow element for a couple of hours. It simmered, didn’t reduce down much but produced a tasty broth that I’ve been eating with grains and beans for the last few days. I also used some to cook rice. The rest of the broth has gone into the freezer in ice cube trays for later use.

It was such a large fish and I had more than enough to go on with so I gave the bottom third of the eel to a friend. The left overs from the cooking (the cooked spine bits, gills and head) went into a hole in the ground next to a recently planted fruit tree. The only bit of the eel that got ‘thrown out’ was the intestine and stomach which I had thrown in the lake because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to do or not. I know trout feed at that spot, probably eels too…

By beginner’s guide I don’t mean only for beginners I mean by a beginner. Seriously. These posts are about how to do something when you don’t know what you are doing. But I’m a great believer in us being able to relearn the old ways, and even if we don’t have someone to teach us directly there is alot we can figure out ourselves by paying attention, talking to people, and giving it a go. So here goes…

I’m going to be talking about killing an eel, and then I’ll do a post on gutting and stuff (with photos). Just letting you know in case that’s too much for some.

I remember catching eels once as a kid but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t eat them and I have no idea how we killed them. I’ve tickled a big old eel that was under a log in the river once, and I’ve seen them when I’ve been swimming or walking in rivers and lakes. An old friend, who’s a rascal, has told me what I hope are apocryphal stories about people getting bitten by eels while swimming, and how the eel latches on and you have to kill it to get it to let go (he tells me these stories because he knows I go swimming in eely places and because he’s an old bastard). Consequently, I’ve been wanting to learn how to kill an eel for some time. To be fair to the eels though, they’ve always been more than generous sharing their territory with me. I’ve had a few people tell me about being bitten by eels (not latched on) and it seems that it’s a defensive action (you step on them under a bank, that kind of thing).

I’ve also been wanting to learn to eat eel because it makes more sense to me to eat oily fish from my neighbourhood rather than take fish oil supplements from Scandinavia or wherever and because eels strike me as being very nutritious. For the past few years I have been picking people’s brains about eels. The biggest obstacle for me is that so many people say eels are really hard to kill. And then I get variations on what you are supposed to do: cut their tails off, hit them on the head, cut the head off etc. Some people also are a bit scathing about eel, like it’s not a nice or worthy food. Similar to how rabbit is seen I guess. But the more I learn about eels the more I understand how awesome they are and I’m all for taking some of that awesomeness into me.

A friend and I were at the beach last night, having a cup of tea and a conversation when some campers walked past. These are people that come here every year, and when I asked them what they were doing they said they were going to catch an eel. One guy said did I want it? He was joking, but of course I said yes!! So they put out a line, which was just a line and a large hook with a bit of trout on it. We stood around and talked for 10 minutes, and then there was an eel on the line. They pulled it in, and it was a reasonably big one – I later measured it at 1180mm. A friend told me today that an eel grows 1 foot every 10 years. That makes this eel nearly 40 years old. Just a few years younger than me, which is giving me some things to think about.

It didn’t struggle very much, which surprised me, just wriggled a bit and lay there and watched. I suspect they’re not always like that. I’m not very good about killing things, it’s too easy for me to imagine the experience of the animal (or what I think the experience is). I seem to be able to see my own death in the death of animals and that’s not always easy.

So I asked them if they would kill it straight away (we were standing round talking about how big it was). I had a tomahawk in the back of the car, so the man hit the eel on the head (just behind the eyes) three times with the back of the axe. The eel was obviously very stunned. The man said they take a long time to die, but he thought that hitting it more wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve heard this before, something to do with the way the eel’s nervous system works. He though the eel was now dead, even though it still moved a bit. He was very cool about it, asking me if I was ok with this. Essentially I had to put the still moving a bit eel in my car and take it home like that. I asked him to cut the head off for me, which he did. It was really dead then. I think it’s easier to process eels if the head is on, but I still have things to learn about their deaths and what to do afterwards, so I figure this first time having it really dead was best all round.

All this seemed manageable to me, and I think I could do this myself now. I gave my silent thanks to Eel, and the lake, and my out loud thanks to the man who was willing to kill something for me. This is a very cool and relatively untraumatic way to get my first eel and I am grateful to the eel for giving up its life so graciously. I’m also grateful for the generosity of strangers and that I live in a place where it’s normal to give an eel to someone you just met. Then we put the eel in the back of the car and drove home.

I’ll write about the gutting, cleaning, cooking and eating in some other posts.

This is a short fin eel (Anguillis australis). You can’t see this in the photo but you can tell because the fin doesn’t go all the way to the head. Long fin eels the fin goes up to the head (I had been thinking the short and long where how far the fin went out from the body). Long fin eels (Anguillis dieffenbachii) are endemic (they don’t live anywhere else in the world) and endangered in NZ. People say you should put them back. I’m not sure how you get a big long hook out of a live eel’s throat, but I agree it’s a good idea if you can release it. I’m relieved we didn’t get one last night.

Longfins have been swimming up NZ rivers for 65 million years. They go upstream as young fish, and then several decades later they swim 5,000 km out into the Pacific to breed, and then they die. Females only breed once and lay millions of eggs. The eggs become larvae then drift back to NZ on ocean currents where they turn into baby eels and swim up the rivers to live. Eels seem to do alot of things in a grand way. They exude strength and in my opinion demand respect.

Short fin eels seem to have a similar life. Te Papa has a page on them.

From what I’ve read, really big eels are most likely females that haven’t bred yet. Some people say not to take the big ones, but I don’t really understand this (maybe the big ones have better survival genes?) unless people mean that smaller ones are more likely to be male (which is a better take from an ecology and sustainability perspective).

I think alot of what I’ve read about eels is about up North, because in the big rivers in the South the eels can’t do what they’ve been doing for 65 million years. Some eels are locked in (including the one I’m about to eat) by the big dams on the Clutha, Waitaki and Waiau rivers. That’s a huge catchment. I don’t know yet what how those eels breed, or what happens to the ones that try and swim up those rivers to the lakes. I find it incredibly sad that so many eels are now locked in and can’t fulfil their ancient genetic drives. Some dams apparently have special channels for the eels to run through. I’ll have to find out what happens with the big dams.

I also need to find out how to tell the sex of an eel before and after you kill it. It’s possible the big dam-locked eels are also males as they can’t go out to sea to breed either and so just keep growing.

The general Maori word for eel is tuna (in my limited understanding that’s pronounced too-nah, not tune-ah like the sea fish). Southern Maori have many names for different kinds of eels (Herries Beattie lists over 20). Kai tahu tradition suggests the eel harvest starts once the popohue starts to flower. That’s the native clematis and it’s usually flowering here in October. I don’t know why that’s the eel harvest time – maybe because the eels breed in autumn? There is alot for me to learn here – I’m thinking already about how healthy the dam-locked populations are, and what are good eeling practices to ensure eels get to survive and live well.

References:

Department of Conservation page on eels

Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori by Herries Beattie

He Kete Taoka – Southern Cultural Materials Resource Kit collated by Rua Mccallum

More of my eeling adventure:

Eel anatomy

Eating eel

I had a cold last week, only it was a hot one. What I mean by that is that I had a rhino virus (a ‘cold’) where the symptoms were signs of heat in my body not signs of coldness. I had had a few days of coughing up gunk from my lungs following some dusty work earlier in the week. By mid week my face and head became hot, and my nose was very dry. I was also tired in the viral infection kind of way, and craving cooling foods and drinks. And I was coughing ‘unproductively’ (meaning phlegm needed to come out but wasn’t). This is quite different than a cold cold, where you might feel cold in your body and crave warming foods and drinks.

My two main remedies were sleep and mullein infusion. Sleep and/or rest is by far the most important thing to do to recover from colds or flu’s well. The body needs energy to focus on the immune response (both increasing immune cell responses and removing the breakdown products via the lymphatic system). If we keep up our normal level of activity it can make it harder for our bodies to fight the infection.

Mullein is a wonderful healer of many lung complaints, including colds, bronchitis and asthma. It’s useful for the whole upper respiratory tract as well, but seems particularly gifted when it comes to lungs. Nourishing, soothing and moistening to mucous membranes mullein helps expel phlegm from the lungs. It is cooling which made it perfect for this cold. I normally get cold colds and so don’t use mullein often as a cold remedy (I prefer thyme). But this week it was a blessing. I picked 5 large fresh leaves…

five leaves

chopped them into a pot, covering them with 2 cups of boiling water…

mullein simmer

and simmered gently for a while (with a lid on).

cup of mullein

That pot has had some infusion taken out – the simmering shouldn’t reduce the amount of liquid much, but it provides enough heat to help break down the cell walls of fresh plants (not needed if the plant is dried). Mullein needs to be strained through a cloth to remove the fine hairs that can irritated the throat.

You could make an infusion like this without simmering, using fresh leaves, or dried. Dried leaves give a stronger medicine, but I’ve been partial to fresh plant infusions of mullein recently. It’s easy to make, and the plants are in full growth spurt, lush and abundant where I am, so it makes sense to use them for medicine at this time when they are so vibrant. I make mullein leaf tincture to use at other times and find it effective with many lung problems too.

I also made some calendula infusion (about a handful of whole flowers to a litre of boiling water, steeped for half an hour, preferably longer), which I drank later in the day to help my lymphatic system.

calendula infusion

I drank several cups of the mullein infusion over the morning and afternoon, and the calendula in the evening. I had several naps during the day, ate a clove of garlic and vitamin C foods, and avoided exertion and stress. By the time I went to bed I felt fine. A few days later I got a bit chesty again (having been an idiot and overdone it work-wise), but another day of drinking mullein set me right.

If you have mullein local to you, try making an infusion and see what it is like. It’s good to get to know medicines before we really need them, and it’s good to be familiar with preparing them when we aren’t feel like crap. We’re much more likely to use them if we already have the practice.

mullein

Different people have different methods for this. Here’s what I do:

1. use more than one source of information (and that means please don’t use this blog as your sole method of IDing a plant). I usually refer to two or three different books, and the internet if that’s handy.

2. buy some good weed ID books. You can often pick them up in secondhand books stores and sometimes on trade me. Libraries often have useful books too.

3. ID plants by botanical name. Common names are often used for several different (and often unrelated) plants eg milk thistle can be Silybum marianum or Sonchus spp (aka puha). This is especially important if you are using the internet or books from other countries, as common names vary even more between continents.

4. cultivate relationships with people who know plants: gardeners, botanists, and farmers are all good sources of knowledge and often love to share it. They speak different languages, so become multi-lingual.

5. learn plant ‘keys’. These are structures of plants that help limit what the plant can be eg whether the leaves grow opposite or alternately along a stem. Leaf shape, texture (eg hairy, leathery, smooth), flower structure, colour etc etc are just some of the things that can help ID a plant. Good ID books will specify keys for individual plants as well as give a general guide to plant keys.

6. use different parts of the plant to help ID eg leaf, stalk, flower, root, seed. The more parts you have the easier it is. Take some of the plant home with you if that’s where your books are.

7. don’t eat or make medicine from any plant until you are certain what it is.

To give you an idea about the value of having different sources of information, here’s chickweed in three different books.

Common Weeds of NZ has a black and white photo of a straggly, sparsely growing, older chickweed plant. There are two close ups, one of the flower, and the other of the hairs that grow on one side of the stem (a key).

common

Weeds of Crops and Gardens in NZ has a black and white photo of lush chickweed showing leaf, flower and seed. There is also a good sized paragraph on the structure of chickweed and how to specifically ID. The second paragraph is about where and how it grows – these paragraphs are aimed at people wanting to control weeds, and there is usually a bit about herbicide use but you can ignore that ;-)

crops

Wild Herbs of Australia and NZ has a simple line drawing of chickweed in seed or bud that shows the distinct characteristics of the plant, alongside a short description. There is also a colour photo relatively close up.

wild

Chickweed is relatively easy to ID, and you could probably get away with one good reference. But it can be confused with mouse-eared chickweed, and the weed books also show that, so you can tell the difference.

Learning new edible and medicinal plants in the wild is fun and satisfying. Enjoy!