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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 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:
There’s no seed in that picture, but the seed capsules look similar to the ovoid flower buds.
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 is what I found on my walk today. Well, the puffball anyway. The other mushroom and the dandelion greens I found in the lawn when I got home, and the chickweed was growing in a pot plant.
The puffball was a real treat and in almost perfect condition. It was sitting on the side of the path – someone had probably kicked it out of the way. I see this so often, puffballs in particular. There’s something attractive about kicking them I suppose, and I might too if I didn’t understand what a great food they are. With this one at least, it wasn’t broken, and I spotted a much larger and older puffball a few feet away that was too far gone to eat.
I’ve only been eating wild mushrooms for a year or so (other than field mushrooms of course). I’m comfortable about eating puffballs but am still learning about the species. Because of its proximity to the spent one I think the one I found today is the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea even though it’s not very big.
(looking at further references, there are a number of Latin names in NZ being used for the Giant Puffball. Three according to Landcare.)
If you’re going to eat a puffball, it needs to look like this inside. Nice and firm, and white.
Puffball scrambled eggs
* slice the puffball and cut small enough to do well in the eggs
* fry in butter until golden on both sides
* add other frying ingredients – in this case garlic, but tomato would be nice too
* beat a couple of eggs with a pinch of salt
* pour over the ‘shrooms, add diced dandelion leaves, and scramble
* serve with chopped chickweed dressed in olive oil, herb vinegar and salt
That used up half the puffball so I sliced the other half in varying thicknesses and fried both sides. When it had cooled I ate it with avocado. Puffballs have a subtle flavour although certainly mushroomy. The ones I ate with the avo had a honey taste, not sweet. Maybe the frying in butter brings that out. The texture is tender.
(the other mushroom in the picture at the top of the post is as yet unidentified…)
Like Curious Kai, I usually have a secret blackberry stash. Unfortunately blackberries here in Central don’t seem to do that well and while I’ve been watching a secret, rather large patch locally I haven’t been getting my hopes up too much – it seems that the intense dry allows the bushes to grow and flower and even fruit but often the fruit doesn’t ripen and shrivels instead. I remember reading years ago in Tom Robbin’s Still Life With Woodpecker about blackberry bushes in Seattle growing so much with all the rain there that Woodpecker (or was it Leigh-Cheri) imagined them taking over the city. No such luck here.
Until yesterday that is, when I found a patch that was not only large and growing well but the berries were big and fat and ripe. And they are just coming on, meaning there will be picking for some weeks to come.
This patch grows near a river and is surrounded by kanuka, willow, native scrub, and lots of weeds creating a fertile and damp niche for the bramble to thrive in.
Blackberries are pretty close to my favourite fruit. I’ve been harvesting them wild for 30 years, starting in my early teens when I couldn’t believe that this intense, succulent berry was there literally free for the picking. It was my first real foraging success as a young adult, something I could do on my own and take home to make blackberry and apple crumble (can’t remember if it was me or mum that did the cooking bit). I’ve been in love with them ever since.
Blackberries arrived here in the 1800s with the British who planted them no doubt fully aware of their virtues. Unfortunately since then blackberries have become much maligned by various local bodies and DOC. I’ve not come across blackberries sprayed at berry time, but if you are concerned then phone your local council or DOC* (if you’re harvesting on public land). With a bit of prompting they should be able to tell you what’s been sprayed when. Or talk to the landowner if it’s private land.
*technically you can’t harvest anything, including introduced weeds, from a National Park without a permit, so spray enquiries are best done without mentioning food. I’m not sure about other DOC reserves.
Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, is part of the rather large Rosaceae family, and is a very close relative of raspberry and the native bush lawyer/tataramoa. Raspberries are less common than blackberries in the wild but can sometimes be found in or around old homestead sites. Tataramoa produce delightful but small berries. By all means taste, but unless you are caretaking bush and know there are plenty to spare, please leave harvesting for the native birds. Blackberry, raspberry and tataramoa are all highly useful as medicines.
In the cooler and wetter places I would expect blackberries to be fruiting next month. It pays to keep an eye out though because you’re up against birds, possums, children and passers-by. It also pays to keep a pottle or two handy in the car for chance encounters (this is true of any wildcrafting and foraging).
I’ll be going back to the patch over the next few weeks to gather berries for eating, vinegar, honey, possibly liqueur and because it’s my first harvest in a hot dry climate I might even try drying some (ok, so I’m sure I won’t get all that done but no harm blackberry dreaming). If you’re new to blackberry harvesting, then it pays to go prepared. Gumboots and overtrousers are a boon if doing a big harvest. Often there is a bit of negotiation with the brambles so a stick or glove for your non-picking hand is useful for holding down errant branches – please take care of the plants and don’t go stomping or breaking unnecessarily. Not only is this a courtesy to the plant who is feeding you, but it ensures your path isn’t too obvious to passersby.
Blackberry and apple crumble
Here’s my peasant foodie recipe for blackberry and apple crumble (sorry, it got eaten before I could take a photo). Normally I would bake this in the oven, but I was staying somewhere without an oven so here’s the adapted frying pan version (you could do this camping pretty easily too, in any size pot as long as the heat is low). Make twice as much as you will eat because this is divine cold the next morning.
* Get a frying pan and melt some butter in it.
* Slice some apples and make a layer in the pan.
* Add a layer of blackberries.
* Add another layer of sliced apple.
* Repeat layers until the pan is 3/4 full or you run out of blackberries.
* Make a layer of rolled oats. I like the large ones.
* Add quite a few knobs of butter and some cinnamon.
* Pour some water over the mix, wetting the oats as much as possible, until there is a decent amount of water in the pan (say half full).
* Bring to a simmer with a lid on, and cook slowly until all the oats are steamed and wet through and the apple is soft.
Goes well with yogurt, cream or ice cream, naturally, but is also good on its own. Best served not too hot.
Blackberry and apple are perfect partners. The local wild apples aren’t quite ripe yet but hopefully will be before the blackberries finish. In the recipe above I used some semi-sweet apples from the organic shop, which collapsed and disappeared in the cooking, leaving a sweet, gooey mass for the blackberries to stew in.
Feeling inspired? Here’s some ideas from other bloggers:
If you’re lucky to get blackberries, rosehips and apples all ripe at the same time, then English herbwife Sarah Head offers her hedgerow tonic recipe. She also has a delightful looking blackberry cordial recipe (scroll half way down).
I’m hoping to make some blackberry liqueur similar to this schnapps recipe.
I was going to call this full moon ‘summer moon’, but I realised I called the last one ‘summer solstice moon’, which would be a bit confusing. I like the idea of summer moon because it’s really the start of the summer here. Just in time for the end of the school holidays and people are back at work, and the weather finally settles into the hotter days of February. December and January are traditionally unpredictable – sometimes summery, sometimes rainy, sometimes, like this year, four seasons in one month.
This year the full moon (30th January) fell close to the cross quarter date – the mid point between the solstice (December 21) and the autumn equinox (March 21). Known in Celtic calendars as Lugnasad, or First fruits, it falls in NZ on the 2nd of February (2nd of August in the Northern Hemisphere). There was a bit of a conversation at Letters from Wetville about how to celebrate this in New Zealand and I like the idea of a transition between the business of the ‘summer’ holidays and the return to regular life.
Juliet Batten writes in Celebrating the Southern Seasons that Lugnasad was traditionally a time of tribal gathering for fairs and games. Nasad is a tribal gathering and Lug is the god of grain, so this was a harvest festival, a celebration of plenty. However she also writes that for Maori, this time of year was lean and not yet a harvest abundance. She suggests that a contemporary marking be the Festival of the Half Harvest, acknowledging where the resources are, where they are needed and how we all benefit by sharing. With the proximity to Waitangi Day (February 6th) and our current national pondering on how best to mark this day, a Sharing Festival seems fitting.
Back to the moon. I settled on Fruiting Moon because it seems fruit are the main seasonal food now. They’re perfect for the heat of summer, and here at least the stone fruit are in full swing – peaches, apricots, plums. I’m also getting plenty of wild strawberries from the garden, and the commercial berries seem to still be going strong. The wild plums are peaking, and the apples are just about starting. I suspect next year I’ll change the name to Swimming Moon, as that seems the most regular given at this time of year, and I don’t know the wild fruit season well enough yet. But this is the point of naming the moons – to learn what actually happens in nature over a long period of time.
If you’ve been watching the full moon this past week you’ll have noticed it seems large and at the time of full was sitting low in the sky. This is because it was perigee on Saturday (the 30th, the day of the full fullness). Perigee is when the moon is closest to the earth (apogee is when it’s furthest away). Perigee and apogee moons are associated with big tidal swings because of the intensity of the gravitational pull at this time.
I’ve been very aware of how little I know about what the moon does and why. Watching it rising golden each perfect, still evening in a week of our first really calm weather in months, it seems so inherent that anyone seeing this and paying attention would mark what was happening. Each night at the moment the moon rises a bit further to the south. At some point it must stop doing that but I have no idea when or why or what happens next and I can’t help but feel like I should, that these things are important in ways that we have forgotten. Not just for marking the passage of time, or knowing when it’s still going to be light, but for ways in which really paying attention to the moon focusses our intuition and appreciation of the subtle. The moon is mesmerisingly attractive – all those esoteric interpretations of the moon as representing the unconscious and intuition seem entirely practical to me now. Engagement with the moon literally changes our consciousness (not to mention our bodies. Hopefully there’ll be a post one day about the effects of the moon on our physicality).
Here’s my salad from the other day’s weed walk – watercress, mallow, plantain, self heal, sheep’s sorrel, dandelion, fathen, mixed with a bit of lettuce. It’s dressed with olive oil, salt, herb vinegar and topped with boiled eggs and violets from the garden.
Reasons to eat weed salads:
Weeds are usually very rich in minerals and vitamins – I’m not completely hung up on measuring nutrient values (there are other useful ways of judging the value of food), but wild plants do have very large amounts of goodies in them, usually higher than cultivated vegetables.
It diversifies our diet – our not too distant ancestors ate a much wider range of foods than we did, giving themselves access to a wider range of nutrients.
Different weeds offer different benefits – bitter herbs aid digestion by increasing bile and liver function; bland herbs are rich in minerals; spicy or tart herbs make food more palatable and interesting, and stimulate saliva thus aiding digestion.
Wildness is ingestible – people who eat wild plants say that they get something from them not in domesticated vegetables. Whether this is a different set of nutrients, or something more intangible and soulful, eating wild foods nourishes us in ways that garden food doesn’t quite touch.
Eating weeds connects us with the land – it makes us more aware of what is happening to the land around us and how it needs to be taken care of.
Tips on making a good salad.
* taste the weeds as you harvest. This gives you a good sense of what you like and how much to gather (lots of blander herbs, small amounts of bitters).
* start simply. If you are new to eating weeds, start by adding small amounts to your existing salads. Focus on weeds you really like.
* treat weeds as you would any other foodstuff. Clean them if necessary, take time to select the best parts, discard tough stalks and other inedible bits.
* some plants are an acquired taste, especially if you aren’t used to them. Again, start with the ones you are attracted to.
* dress the salad ahead of time with something salty, something fatty, and something acidic. I like sea salt, olive oil and herbal vinegar. Salt, fat and acid all increase palatability and satiation as well as making nutrients more available (by breaking down the cell walls of the greens). The longer you leave the salad to sit dressed, the more nourishment you will get from it.
* don’t be afraid to add flowers (which need a post of their own!!) for aesthetics, taste and nourishment.
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:
a sharp knife
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!
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.
I’ve been craving greens this week so have been out looking for the summer weeds. Here’s what I found on my weed walk today. Most of these plants were growing wild.
Self heal, Prunella vulgaris. A low growing perennial, found in shady or damp-ish places. A member of the Lamiaceae family that includes mint. All members of this family have square stems and leaves opposite in pairs. This photo is a bit confusing because there is another plant there that looks very similar but with shinier leaves (self heal has matt leaves). I need to go back and find out what it is. This is a good instruction in paying attention and being certain that what you are picking is what you think you are picking. Unlike many others of the mint family self heal has no volatile oil. Tastes bland with a subtle pungency (that is stronger in wetter places I think).
Watercress, used to be Rorippa sp now Nasturtium sp (probably N microphyllum). Only very distantly related to the garden nasturtiums. Introduced from Eurasia, there are two species in NZ. Watercress grows mainly in streams with moving water, occasionally in boggy places. Most of this patch is flowering with long thin seed heads rather than leaves, but I manage to find a small handful of green shoots. A member of the cabbage family (Cruciferae, because the flowers always form a cross pattern), it is pungent and hot to taste.
Mallow, Malva sp. One of the smaller mallows, just about to flower. The leaves contain mucilage, which makes it cooling and moistening medicinally and food-wise. It’s related to the marshmallow and has similar uses herbally. The taste is bland.
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Grows everywhere. Needs to be identified to distinguish from lookalikes. Young leaves that have come up after being mown I think. Or maybe first year leaves. Either way, bitter taste but not too bitter. Older leaves would be more bitter and so best to use less of them.
Plantain/kopakopa, Plantago major. Smallish, gnarly plants from another patch of mown grass, but still lush. Notable for their five or more distinct ribs with a thread inside when broken open at the stalk. There are two species in NZ, this one and another that has long thin leaves (P lanceolata). The narrow leafed one isn’t that great as a food, but both medicinal. Taste is green.
Fathen, Chenopodium sp, probably C album. A relative of spinach, quinoa and amaranth. It’s been a traditional food in both the Americas and Europe. This is a young plant – adults can grow up to a metre when seeding. It’s a common first arrival in new soils and grows prolifically, so if you like the taste it’s worth letting it seed in the garden (it’s not hard to weed out from places you don’t want it). Taste when young is bland, tarter when older.
Sheep’s sorrel, Rumex acetosella. One of the docks, a small, usually low growing one. It has a distinct double ‘tag’ at the bottom of each leaf. With a similar tartness as the docks but more lemony (like garden sorrel) and suitable for eating raw.
There’s been a couple of wildcrafting related posts this week from other kiwi bloggers that I wanted to share:
Nigel Olsen from Curious Kai has a post on eeling, with a great slide show that includes degreasing and filleting (I’m still eating my eel from the freezer and the myriad wee bones are certainly something I’ll be thinking about more carefully next time). There’s some useful tips on attracting eels, and check out that smoker! Nigel also talks about ecological concerns and decreasing eel numbers due to commercial fishing and habitat destruction, with useful links about the current issues.
The people at Millstream Gardens have a post on their current harvesting and medicine making that also includes a surprise out of season giant puffball. It’s got a very useful photo of what a puffball should look like inside if you are going to eat 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 sautéed with onion. It was incredibly tender and very mild tasting – much 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…