28 July 2013

Chasing Lovage, Stumbling on Plantain

In which caribougrrl and Fefe Noir go whale watching, take note of some foraging opportunities, get outmaneuvered by some sheep, make way for the caterpillars, and provide you with some tips for picking and preparing a couple of seaside edibles.

It started the way these things usually do.  We were out for a coastal walk, looking for whales.  A minke was swimming along the shoreline, quite close, but we were up a cliff and having trouble keeping our eye on it.  So I scrambled out on a rocky head for a better look and once there, I noticed in a crevice next to me a plant I vaguely recognized.  I knew I should know what it was but just couldn't conjure it up.  So I did what you do in those situations; picked a couple of leaves and crushed them between my fingers then inhaled.  Celery-like.  So I stuck it in my mouth, like you would, right?  Contemplating the flavour (celery-parsley-fresh air-ness) and trying to bring the name of the plant to mind, I heard a stern voice behind me.  Fefe Noir.  "Did you just eat something?"

"Noooo...," I said in my most convincing (er, I mean transparently-guilty sounding) voice.  I have a habit of lying about stuff like this even, or perhaps especially, when I know it's abundantly clear that I'm lying.  I don't know why I do it.  Survival instinct?  No, I didn't hear a noise that sounded like that bear over there, it must be your imagination..  Of course I wasn't trying to break that large branch into firewood  by standing on one end and pulling up the other end; you must be seeing things.

Young love-age.
"Lovage!" I shouted as it came to me.  "Scotch lovage!"

Then the important question: Fefe Noir squinted at me and said, very slowly, "Are you sure?".  I don't know why she's always so skeptical.  She doesn't know how I'm still alive.

I had to admit, no, not absolutely certain.  Pretty sure.  Ninety-six-point-seventy-five percent sure.  So I picked some and stuck it in my pocket, to identify later.  I scoured the area though, several small plants, none looking big enough to cut back just yet, but maybe in a couple of weeks.  The whale by then was almost forgotten, until it surfaced so close to us we could hear the blowing.  Lovage forgotten.

After consulting with both Peter Scott's field guide to edible plants of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Peterson guides for both edible plants and wildflowers (and despite the conspicuous absence of scotch lovage from the Peterson guides), I was able to convince Fefe Noir that I was indeed correct about the identification.  We started talking, obsessively, about what to do with it specifically for the blog... and while making this decision over the next few weeks, we seemed to see it everywhere we went.  In one place where the scotch lovage was so abundant, we could have literally picked bushels and hardly made a dent... it was, of course, a day when we weren't ready for it and we were too far from home to consider going back for some later.  Aside from a bit of seaside nibbling, we left that field of lovage alone but we did stop there for a picnic.

Seaside plantain is the sort of plant you walk past and
walk over without really seeing it.   It's worth paying
attention to.
Now, recall that I have been flipping through my edible plant guides, and I may have been poking around the miracle of the internet to see how other people use lovage... and thus checking out other seaside edible plants.  And there we were, sitting on the ground and right next to me is a plant I recognize.  A plant I've seen all over the place for years, but I didn't know was edible until very recently: seaside plantain.  I couldn't recall having read anything about there being similar toxic plants and I couldn't quite recall how it's meant to be used, so I did what I do best and picked a leaf and stuck in my mouth.  I was contemplating the slightly bitter but otherwise strangely tasteless raw leaf when I heard a stern voice behind me... 

So here's the thing.  Both scotch lovage and seaside plantain are extremely common along the coast of the north Atlantic ocean.  Until you are ready to use them, then the plantain remains happily abundant but the lovage disappears.  But, you're thinking (and you're right), we had seen lovage, lots of it, and taken note of where it was.

Most of the places we'd been to were with visitors from away... so places a bit far-flung for a quick trip for a fistful of lovage, or places that you visit because they are nature preserves and, well, protected, so picking lovage isn't cool (much less permissible).  No problem.  Although there wasn't very much lovage in that first place I spotted it, some time had gone by, so we knew it was a sure spot for how much we needed.  However, I failed to mention earlier in the post that this particular area is part of a municipal pasture.  Did it cross my mind that if I was interested in eating scotch lovage, the local sheep might likewise be interested?  Admittedly, no.  Lesson learned.

A multitude of similar coastal trails visited, thousands of plantain plants, no lovage.  So we finally went back to the place we harvested the plantain (skipping the lovage at the time because we were evidently over-confident about being able to find it closer to home).  We brought the dogs to kill two metaphorical birds with one metaphorical stone, making it feel a bit less like back-tracking.

One last amazing thing before you get to the how-to below:  the scotch lovage which was still right where we left it was already occupied when we arrived.  A couple of short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars were busy munching on loveliest of lovely scotch lovage plants.  There was enough lovage to share (thankfully) and we carefully harvested stems from parts of the plant not being used by the caterpillars.

Short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars are strongly associated with scotch lovage.  And very pretty too.


Identify, pick and use seaside plantain and scotch lovage.

Seaside Plantain Plantago juncoides (also known as Goose Tongue)

Seaside plantain tends to grow in colonies.

The Peterson guide aptly describes seaside plantain as a "homely" plant.  It's low growing and generally found in colonies above but close to the high tide line (though looking at how it's distributed, you get the sense that wave action is part of how seeds are dispersed; it's not uncommon to see a lone plant here or there, up a cliff face or much further inland than the others).  We have found it on pebbly beaches, in rock crevices, and interspersed with black crowberry on coastal heaths.  The leaves are fleshy with a deep groove through the length and although some grow straight, many of the leaves curl and curve around in strange ways.  Flower stalks are erect and are topped with a tight elongated cluster of greenish-yellowish flowers.

Pick only 1-3 leaves from each plant (fewer from smaller plants, more from larger plants) being careful to not pull the roots of the plant up.  The leaves twist out of the plant fairly easily if you are selecting younger central leaves... the older the leaf, the more bitterness it has, so we stuck to the younger leaves.  If they are resisting plucking, they are probably too old anyway.

Since this was the first time we used seaside plantain, we stuck to the recommendation in all the field guides consulted: we boiled the leaves in a small amount of water and served with butter.  They hold their shape during cooking and the flavour is slightly salty and bitter like rapini, the texture similar to asparagus but slightly chewier.  This would be an excellent green to serve with lamb.

As a **cautionary note**:  Apparently in areas where there are salt marshes, a similar plant called seaside arrowgrass accumulates cyanide in the leaf.  Avoid confusing the two!  Seaside arrowgrass leaves grow more or less straight up (rather than curling) and are not grooved.  My suspicion is that it's difficult to confuse them side by side, but if you are salt-marsh wanderer, be mindful.

Scotch Lovage Ligusticum scothicum (also known as Scots Lovage, Sea Lovage, Sea Parsley, Sea Celery)

Scotch lovage is very similar to flat leafed parsley in appearance and taste.

If you are familiar with herb garden varieties of lovage, you will have no trouble spotting this plant.  We found them on pebble beaches, in crevices of rocky outcrops/rocky heads and in coastal heaths.  Plants are bushy and tall (10-60 cm) with clustered white or greenish-white flowers in an umbrella-like shape (similar to yarrow and other carrot-family flowers).  The leaves are alternate on stalks and composed of three flat three-lobed leaflets with toothed edges.  Veins in the older leaves are visually prominent ranging from dark green to reddish-purple; but are not terribly prominent in the young growth.  When you crush the leaves, they smell heartily of celery.  Black and short-tailed swallowtail caterpillars are strongly associated with scotch lovage (and other wild parsley or parsnip-like plants).

Like any perennial herb, it can stand cutting, but since we share wild plants with wild (and, apparently, domestic) animals, we left the vast majority of the plant intact.  For use as a fresh herb, select thinner stems; for use as a cooked herb go ahead and cut some of the older, thicker stems.  The flavour is (not surprisingly) very similar to flat-leafed parsley but with a strong celery note and the taste of sea-air, probably from the saltiness.  Use as you would use parsley or celery leaf.  We made tabbouleh, one of our favourite parsley dishes.

Fefe Noir's Seaside Tabbouleh

1 c. whole grain bulgur (cracked wheat)
juice of 1-1/2 lemons
2-inch piece of preserved lemon, rind only, finely diced
1 tomato, finely diced
1 bunch scotch lovage (or substitute parsley from your herb garden), leaves only, minced
sprig of fresh mint (bonus points for wild mint, we couldn't find any), leaves only, minced
2-4 spring onions (2 if they're large, 4 if they're small), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed
salt to taste
a goodly grind of black pepper

Pre-soak bulgar:  In a non-reactive bowl combine bulgar with the juice of 1/2 lemon plus enough water to make up 1 c. liquid.  Let sit overnight (or if you didn't plan ahead, give it at least 2 hours for the bulgur to absorb the water).

Combine all remaining ingredients with soaked bulgur (don't forget the other lemon, juiced).  Let sit for at least an hour before eating to let the flavours combine.  Serve at room temperature.  

Another excellent side for lamb... we may have a meal here... 


The lovely Bella did some seaside foraging of her own while we were out gathering lovage.  She's rather fond of
getting getting some extra calcium by scavenging crab shells discarded by gulls.

Seaside Foraging: Lovage and Plantain on Punk Domestics

21 July 2013

You Be the Bee

Capture the essence of spending a summer afternoon lying in a meadow with your favourite book by making this honey-like syrup infused with clover and wild rose.

This recipe came to us from our neighbour, Vanessa, who takes no credit for it, telling us it is an old, old, old British recipe.  

Clover is at the peak of flowering when wild rose
becomes available.
Vanessa's Clover "Honey"

80 white clover blossoms
40 red clover blossoms
5 wild rose petals
2 kg granulated sugar
3 c water
1/2 tsp alum powder

(See notes below about finding and selecting flowers.)

Remove all greenery from the clover (stems and sepals).  Place both types of clover blossom and rose petals in a large heat-proof dish.  (I used a rectangular pyrex baking dish.)  Set aside on a heat-resistant surface.

Boil vigorously, do not simmer.
Combine sugar, water and alum in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan; carefully bring to a boil stirring occasionally until sugar is dissolved.

You want to be very careful not to let this boil over as it is, after all, hot boiling sugar: send your dogs, cats, and young hairless bipedal pets out of the kitchen before starting.  You are reading the instructions completely before starting, right?  If not, kick them out now.  
Let the flowers stand in the hot sugar syrup to take full
advantage of their flavour and colour.

Let boil vigorously for 5 minutes.  If the liquid remains cloudy, boil until clear.  Remove from heat and let rest for 30-60 seconds.  

Pour hot sugar syrup over flowers and let stand 20 minutes.  

Strain into clean glass jars with tight-fitting lids.  

This syrup is a great substitute in recipes calling for corn syrup or anywhere you struggle to dissolve granulated sugar (substitute by weight).  Although we can get local honey, it's available unpredictably, so one of the nice things about this syrup that it's reminiscent of honey in taste and density, and can be used similarly.

The syrup just before straining.  When Fefe Noir was picking the clover, she promised the bees buzzing around that she had planted at least one flower for each one she picked.  Proof in background.  


On finding and harvesting the flowers.  

Red clover.

All the flowers for this recipe grow in meadows, pastures, clearings, forest edges and other open areas.  Clover will start flowering before the roses, but just be patient, the clover will flower for weeks or months so there's no hurry.  Once the rose starts to flower, you are in a bit more of a rush, but you should have at least a couple of weeks to get some. 

White clover (center).
Both the clovers have characteristic 3-leaflet leaves and both have pale triangular markings on the leaf.  White clover has a rounder leaf; red clover has a longer leaf.  Both have dense, round flower heads: red clover blossoms are larger and pink; white clover blossoms are relatively small and white with a slight pink tinge at the base.  In the unlikely event you don't know what clover looks like, see the photos to the left.

Choose full, round blossoms where the lower exterior flowers are still fresh (not yet browning).  

Wild rose.
Wild rose is a thorny or bristly shrub, depending on the species... also depending which species you have locally, the leaves are composed of 5-9 toothed leaflets with opposite arrangement.  In all cases, the flower ranges from light to deep pink with 5 wide showy petals.  

When collecting your rose petals, one rose provides all you need.  Literally stop to smell the roses: the more fragrant the flower, the better it will do in this recipe.
Harvest the blossoms and petals all the same day you plan to make the syrup.  That is, pick your flowers then go straight home to make it.  


Hey... where did this cat come from?

You Be the Bee:  Clover

10 July 2013

Five Things to do with Chive Flowers

Having been over-run with chives earlier in the year, we are now over-run with chive flowers.  It's a good problem to have, so much so it isn't really a problem: for starters, the flowers are awful pretty, so they make us happy whether we use them or not.  But even better, they are edible and we like eating flowers.  Admittedly, there is a myriad of ways to use the flowers, but here are our five favourites. 

Any suggestions?  Fefe says she is tired of chive flowers, but caribougrrl is still looking for more ways to eat them.  Leave us a comment!

ONE:  Chive Flower Mayonnaise

The thing that makes chive flower mayonnaise is that although you make mayonnaise as usual, you add chive flowers to it.  Sometimes simple ideas are the best.

2 egg yolks
3 chive flower heads
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp hot mustard powder
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 c. sunflower oil

Take the eggs out of the fridge well before making the mayo; you want the yolks to be room temperature or slightly warmer.  Choose big full chive flowers, rinse them off, and get rid of any bugs or debris in them.  Once dry (go ahead and help this along by rolling gently in a clean tea towel), pull the individual flowers out of the head.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together egg yolks, chive flowers, salt, mustard and vinegar until combined and smooth.  The next part, the bit that really makes the mayonnaise, is tedious and boring but very simple... unless you lack patience or stamina, you can't really go wrong.  You will find lots of advice for ways to make mayonnaise with a blender or food processor, but in my experience you will get your best results by hand whisk.  As an added bonus, painstakingly hand-whisking oil and eggs into mayo gives you the opportunity to experience a small miracle and really puts you in touch with food production in a personal way.  This is a highly satisfying job.  

Right then, ready?  Add oil a drop or two at a time, whisking until fully incorporated (no liquidy oil spots visible).  Keep adding a drop or two at a time until it emulsifies quickly and easily.  Take a moment to stretch out your hand and forearm, and start adding the oil in a slow thin stream, whisking constantly.  If you start to see a slick of oil on the mixture, stop adding oil and whisk until incorporated.  Take occasional breaks as needed to rest or stretch your arm.  Or rope someone else into helping.  Keep adding oil slowly until you get the desired thickness.  This is not aioli, don't make it runny.  If you come to the end of the cup of oil and it's too thin, add more oil.

Transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator.  This will keep only a couple of weeks, so use it!  

Variation -  Fermented Chive Flower Mayonnaise:  If you want to make a mayo that lasts for months rather than weeks, add some whey and lacto-ferment it.  I find it pretty successful taste-wise; the texture is not quite as nice, but the trade-off is preservation.  That means you can make a double or triple batch after making an angel food cake or meringues to use up the yolks, even if you don't have immediate plans for the mayo.  Here's what you do:  drain some yogurt with active bacteria in it to get the whey (the liquid that drains off).  Add 3 tbsp of whey to the recipe (1-1/2 tbsp per egg yolk) and reduce the vinegar to 1 tsp.  Mix the whey in with the other ingredients before adding the oil.  The mixture will take more than a cup of oil with the additional liquid, so just keep adding until it feels right.  Transfer to a clean jar with a lid, store at room temperature in a dark place (like a cupboard) for 7-12 hours.  I know, it's counter-intuitive to leave mayo at room temperature, but that's what you do; this is when the good probiotic bacteria culture the mayo and increase the shelf-life. You need to let them do their growing magic so they can prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria.  

Among other uses, chive flower mayonnaise is a great dressing for summer potato salad and an excellent topping for cod and crab burgers.

TWO and THREE:  Chive Flower Vinegar and Quick-pickled Chive Flowers

Make Wholesome Ireland's Chive Flower Vinegar.  Infusing white vinegar with chive flowers turns it a fantastic shade of pinky-purple, gives the vinegar a subtle but undeniably present onion-y chive-y flavour.  The vinegar adds some charm to your salad dressings and I suspect is delightful on fish & chips.  As a bonus:  Follow the full instructions and when you strain the vinegar, reserve the quick-pickled chive flowers and eat them too.  Fefe Noir says that, sprinkled with salt, the pickled chive flowers are just like strong pickled onions: perfect with a punchy cheese.

FOUR:   Chive Flower Pizza Dough

Use the recipe for dandelion flower pizza dough, substituting pulled-apart chive flower for the dandelion fluff. The chive flowers are less subtle so you might want to reduce the volume (or not, they're very tasty) or use whole grain flour (or not and keep the chive flowers highly visible).  What more can we say?  Makes a really good pizza crust. 

FIVE:  Chive Flower Felafel

Add chive flowers and chives (or substitute for part or all of the parsley) in your favourite felafel recipe.  Mmmmm...

Chive Flower Mayonnaise: Two Variations on Punk Domestics

6 July 2013

Cod and Crab Burgers

Species that are somewhat at odds with each other in the wild combine to become a delectable meal on your dinner plate.

6 oz. snow crab meat, drained and shredded
2 lbs 4 oz. cod fillet (fresh or thawed from frozen), coarsely diced
1-3/4 c. bread crumbs
1/4 c. parsley, minced
2 spring onions, minced
coarse ground black pepper to taste

We buy our snow crab down the street at the processing plant, pre-cooked and frozen (when we are especially lucky, a neighbour shows up with crab for us).  We thawed about a pound of crab in the shell for this recipe.   Make the bread crumbs from stale bread.

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl.  Shape into 8 burgers and place flat on a tray or plate.  Cover and refrigerate overnight to allow them to set.

Preheat grill on high; oil grill and turn down to medium high.  Lightly oil fish burgers and cook 4 minutes on each side (all grills are different, so use your judgement, they may be done sooner or later, but will feel firm when they are fully cooked).

Serve on toasted red fife buns with quick-pickled red onion and chive flower mayonnaise, or other condiments of your choice.


This week we were invaded by visitors from mainland Canada.  The sort of visitors you have to accept (family) and you have to, HAVE TO, feed (teenage boys).  Serendipitously, we bought way too much cod from a roadside stand recently, and had a little more than a couple pounds in the freezer.  And some snow crab.  Combining the two results in the ultimate Newfoundland burger to serve to tourists.  Nevermind the tourists though, make these burgers for yourself.  (Hoard them.  If you share, you will regret it.)  But don't take my word for it, family and especially teenage boy family, are very honest critics: we had to cut the last one of these in half to avoid the brewing fist fight over it.

1 July 2013

Canada Day Burger Buns

Canada is the secret ingredient in a bun that meets the high standards of your home made burgers.  Barbecue season is short up here.  Make a bun worthy of it.

2 c. milk
2 tbsp birch syrup (or use 2 tbsp dark maple syrup)
550 g Red Fife wheat flour
2 tsp traditional yeast
250 g all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 egg white, beaten
2 tbsp nigella seed (also known as black onion seed)

Heat the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, stirring regularly, until it is hot enough that it's uncomfortable to keep your finger in the milk past counting to 8 (Fefe laughed at me when she read that, but it's the only way I know how to describe the correct temperature).  Pour hot milk into a big mixing bowl, stir in birch syrup.  Sprinkle yeast over milk mixture and let sit until proofed (surface is thick and foamy and bubbling).

Add 200 g of each the Red Fife and all-purpose flour.  Stir with a wooden spoon in one direction until the thin dough is smooth and you are beginning to see strands of gluten clinging to the side of the bowl (about 200 strokes).  Add the salt and oil and about a third of the remaining Red Fife flour, stir until well incorporated.  Add more Red Fife flour a handful or two at a time until the dough forms a ball that pulls away from the bowl.  

Turn out the dough onto a well-floured work surface.  Knead the dough until it feels full and smooth and is talking back.  How much additional flour you will need will depend to a large extent on the humidity.  If the surface of the dough is sticky, add more flour to the board, if it's not sticky don't worry if you haven't used all the flour in the ingredient list.

Wash out your bowl (or get a clean one) and oil it.  Put a bit of oil on your hands and rub it over the surface of the dough.  Put the dough in the oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and put it in a warm place to rise.  Rise until doubled in bulk if you are in a hurry (about an hour or so), or rise as long as convenient for you (the Red Fife can take a long slow rise... you've got all sorts of time: go to the market, head to the lake for a swim*, wash your floors**...)

*if you are in Newfoundland, don't do this in early July, the ponds have not yet warmed up...
** this is what we did

Punch down the dough and knead a few turns to get the air out of the bread.  Shape into buns (flattened circles) and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  This requires a bit of guesswork; knowing the buns will rise to about twice the height and increase in width by about a third, so imagine the size of the burgers you will be making when you are forming your buns.  This batch will make 8-12 buns.

Let the buns rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour).  Heat oven to 375F.  Brush buns with egg white and sprinkle with nigella seeds.  Bake for 20-22 minutes until golden brown all over and sounding hollow when tapped.


Two very Canadian ingredients, Red Fife wheat flour and birch syrup, are key in these buns.  They are Canadian like a collection of Alice Munro stories: honest but surprising, simple but lusty.

Red Fife is a Canadian heritage variety of wheat which, lucky for us and thanks to the efforts of the Red Fife Presidium, has made enough of a resurgence to be readily available these days.  The flour is a pleasure to bake bread with, but Madeleine Greey is far more articulate about it than I am, so I am happy to leave it to her to sing the praises of Red Fife.  The Red Fife lends these buns a slightly nutty and earthy flavour.

Last fall, I picked up a bottle of Sweet Tree birch syrup in British Columbia and brought it back with me (this counts as local food, I'm sure of it: I was travelling whether or not the syrup did) and it turns out to make a really good bread sugar.  Birch syrup is almost impossible to describe; it's entirely different than the better-known maple syrup; it's sharper and has a more mineral taste (though dark maple syrup would be a good substitute, if you can't get birch syrup, to maintain the Canadian-ness of the bread).  It actually tastes rather similar to molasses, but not the same.  So here it comes, after standing in the kitchen, Fefe Noir and I both tasting birch syrup, then molasses, then birch syrup, then molasses, etc. for 10 minutes, this is the best I can do: birch syrup has more tang, it's not as soft a taste.  In addition to providing some sugar to get the yeast on the go, it adds colour to the bread and sharpens the earthy flavour of the Red Fife.

Making your own bread, by hand, is a very tactile-sensuous process, and thus an excellent way of getting up close and personal with your food.  Bread making is simple; it's made to sound very scary with all the proofing and kneading and rising, but it really is simple.  And though it's time consuming, much of that time is just waiting for the yeast to do it's magic.  So make your buns, fire up the grill, and blast out the Tragically Hip... it's Canada Day, after all.