This one little pot keeps me supplied with everything I need for seasoning and home remedies based on sage. Now it’s flowering – I love it.
This one little pot keeps me supplied with everything I need for seasoning and home remedies based on sage. Now it’s flowering – I love it.
There’s a neglected lot between two buildings near my house. Somehow I wandered into it several years ago, having glimpsed it from the sidewalk. It looked like a weedy sort of place…and I like weeds. But as it was a hot, dry September then, the place looked like this.
Following my instinct next spring, I went back to see if the rains had brought up any interesting herbs from that sere ground with its two pathetic tree stumps. I found this:
A wealth of wild chamomile and other herbs, with a flowering magnolia tree to the left and an orange tree bearing both blooms and fruit on the right.
Today, I took bags, scissors, and my camera out there to pick and photograph the wild bounty.
There was so much plantain and chamomile. Below, you see a clump of plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with a few low-growing mallows at its feet. The starry white flowers are fragrant chamomile.
I picked two kinds of plantain today. The rarer Plantago major grows only in one place that I know of near home. It has a broad leaf and its seeds grow all along the length of a slender stalk. Below you see it on the ground, in the yard of a nearby building. I was once admiring this spread of plantains from the sidewalk when a lady passed by and said, “That’s not lettuce.”
I knew that.
The broader-leaved the plantain, the more medicinal, say herbalists.
Here is the narrow-leaved Plantago lanceolata.
When I bring plantain home, I rinse it well and allow it dry. Then I chop it up the green, vibrant leaves and steep them in hot olive oil. The infused oil is excellent as ear drops and as part of a healing salve that helps take away the venom from mosquito and spider bites. I also keep a few leaves aside to dry for use as a tea that helps control coughs. The seed head yields psyllium, a well-known bulk laxative that’s only the dry, mature seeds of this plant.
Plantains are edible, but tough, stringy, and not very tasty. If liked, though, you can use the small, young leaves in soup or stew.
Shepherd’s Purses was still green and growing, although it’s late in the season and it’s gotten kind of stringy. It’s valuable, either tinctured into alcohol or dried for tea, to stop excessive bleeding. I have often given the tea to women after birth or to control abnormally heavy menstruation.
The rosette of Shepherd’s Purse, hugging the ground, can easily be mistaken for dandelion before the stalks shoot up. One interesting thing about the herb is how it’s called the same in all languages. Apparently the heart-shaped seed pods look exactly like the lunch bag that shepherds traditionally carry on their backs.
I have eaten Shepherd’s Purse in salads. It’s quite peppery. The seed pods, broken open, reveal innumerable tiny orange seeds. Its flowers are a little, delicate white bunch sitting on top of the stalk.
Cape sorrel was originally a decorative plant brought over from South Africa. It’s now a garden weed much loved by small children, who appreciate the refreshing, sour flavor of its leaves and flowers.
Hiding among more abundant plants were some wild marigolds. I cut away as many flower heads as I could, knowing that the more you cut marigolds, the more will come back up the next morning. Marigolds (calendula) are disinfectant and soothing to the skin. I include the bright orange flowers in a formula for eczema. When a friend was bitten by a dog, I washed the wound with a strong tea of wild marigolds, plantain, and chickweed, twice daily. The inflamation came down quickly and healing started with no trouble. I also like to make a moisturizing lotion that’s made with calendula tea.
There were plenty of mallows, but this late in the season they’re infested with bug (or snail) eggs.
I console myself remembering that earlier in the spring I dried a bunch of good, small young mallow leaves.
There were still nettles, getting mature already. Once those green seeds become brown and hard, it’s time to stop picking nettles. I took a small bunch to cook up fresh tomorrow, either in soup or perhaps stirred into quinoa.
In the center of the photo below stands a proud sow thistle. The leaves on this one are old and tough, but they are edible. The young leaves of early spring make better eating. Sow Thistle revives the appetite, both for humans and for birds. I used to feed it to my budgies and they loved it. Made them hungry, too.
Here are some of the herbs at home, rinsed and drying. Broad-leaved plantain and nettles…
Shepherd’s Purse drying and waiting to get chopped up then steeped in alcohol. Maybe you can spot the little white flowers at the tips of the stalks.
And the graceful stalks and seed heads of narrow-leaved plantain make a little bouquet.
It was a satisfying hour spent in the sun, breathing in the apple fragrance of chamomile and admiring the courage of these little wildlings, spent so gallantly breaking through hard, unfriendly soil to spread beauty and healing. I’m glad I was there to salute them.
“I want to show you that food in Israel isn’t all choumous and falafel,” said Chef Sufyan.
My sister and I looked at the table, which was covered with intriguing herbs both fresh and dried, a platter of spices and grains, an old-fashioned mortar and pestle, slim bottles containing -surely – something magical.
“Mallows, kitchen sage, Jerusalem sage gathered on the hillsides around town, za’ater, sumac, smoked green wheat! I grew up eating these wild foods, and more, in my family’s village near Hebron.
“I studied cooking at the MMK – My Mother’s Kitchen. When I run into trouble with a recipe, I call my mother, and she’ll tell me, ‘Don’t worry, call your grandma!’ There has to be something of yourself in the food you cook. I want to give the public the delicious foods so intimately bound with my roots.”
Chef Sufyan is a man on a mission: to preserve the foodways of the Arab/Jewish Jerusalemite communities. “To tie past and present together by serving Biblical foods today, ” he adds. He dwells lovingly and with encyclopedic knowledge on food traditions: from the quality of well water to the ancient way of making date honey (filtered through clean sand, then washed), to the medicinal properties and spiritual resonance of the foods.
And he shares a goal with an eclectic group of chefs: achieving peace between peoples by sharing cuisines. This is Chefs for Peace, a movement that began in 2001 at a food conference in Italy where a number of Israeli chefs – Arab, Christian, and Jewish – found themselves cooking and eating together and becoming friends.
“Of course the restaurant is kosher,” says Sufyan. “This is Jerusalem. If my food isn’t kosher and available to all people in the Holy City, what have I achieved?” Little Eucalyptus has a kashrut certificate from the Jerusalem Rabbinate. During the three hours my sister and I feasted, we saw that the kashrut supervisor was present and active in the facility the whole time. Sufyan says that the supervisor cleans the fresh wild leaves himself.
Yes, we sat down and feasted for three hours. That is, we did give our knives and forks a rest at intervals. The menu we chose, a tasting menu called “King David” was composed of many small portions, beautifully presented and paced so that we could eat, converse, and allow ourselves room for the next course.
A huge, hot pitta, arrived, slightly charred on one side (and all the tastier for it). Next to it were a fragrant dip of fresh, green za’atar, another of spinach strongly flavored with garlic, a purée of black-eyed peas, and a mild potato salad. This came with an unexceptional white wine. We asked for an excellent red wine from the Castel winery to accompany the rest of the meal.
A tray of soups served in espresso cups followed. They were: a lemony, chunky lentil soup, a soup of Jerusalem artichokes with almond milk, and a tomato soup flavored with mint. Extremely delicious, all.
Sis and I already understood the wisdom of those small portions as more and more delicacies were set down in front of us. Following the soups came a salad composed of potatoes, seven different herbs, lemon and sage oil:
The huge variety of flavorful dishes reminded me of a festive meal at some medieval nobleman’s castle. And come to think of it, many of the ingredients and recipes brought back to Europe by the Crusaders originated in Jerusalem.
At this point we asked for permission to take kitchen photos, which Sufyan kindly gave.
It was really an excuse to get up and stretch the legs. The small, tidy kitchen was reassuringly homelike, with the chef’s reductions and vegetables simmering away on the very plainest of stoves.
Here a pitta is quickly pushed into shape, seasoned with olive oil and za’atar, and draped over a clay pot containing a pre-cooked chicken stew.
The whole is popped into the oven and presented at table like this:
Chicken stewed in a clay pot covered with pitta, on my plate (pardon the blur).
But while the stew was in the oven, Sufyan showed us how to make the most delicate grilled eggplant salad I’ve ever tasted or can hope to taste. He peeled the charred skin away from an entire eggplant, dipping his fingers into a glass of water as he went. The eggplant lay flat on a plate. When I try peeling a roasted eggplant, I wind up with little eggplant rags; his beautifully whole vegetable filled me with admiration. Sufyan then pressed a fork into the meat of the eggplant to allow the seasonings to permeate it.
Salt, lemon juice, paprika, and drizzles of techinah followed, the whole drizzled again with threads of pomegranate syrup. It was layered with earthy, savory and sweet flavors, punctuated by the pomegranate syrup. My sister told Sufyan, “Leave me alone now, I’m in love!”
Fortunately Sufyan knows how to take a jest.
“Main course coming up,” he announced. Sis and I winced. How much more could we eat? Much more, it turned out, but in small portions. To help us cope with the onslaught, Sufyan poured a clear yellowish liquid out of one of those magic bottles: liqueur of Jerusalem sage, aromatic and delicate. In addition to our wine, we’d been drinking lemonade and tamarind-rosewater refreshers from heavy clay pitchers.
Were we able for the next course? Bring it on.
Beef stewed with sweet potatoes, accompanied by smoked green wheat…
Prunes stuffed with slivers of chicken breast (exquisite, this)…
Stuffed Jerusalem sage…
By the time the dishes were cleared for dessert, Sis and I were past caring about mundane things like calories. We were so seduced and lulled and becalmed in our carved chairs that it seemed like the outside world had stopped, and we were alone with a great culinary talent in a white buttoned jacket and the smiling, silent waitress. A welcome pitcher of hot mint and sage tea was placed on the table. We sipped and awaited.
No photo of dessert…we were too stupified to react. Two small squares of a moist semolina cake poised on the edge of a rectangular platter looked down on a decorative pattern of pale techinah and brown pomegranate syrup. We just dipped fingers in and licked.
The Little Eucalyptus Restaurant is co-owned by chef Moshe Basson and chef Sufyan Awiyech. It’s located at Yannai St. No. 4, City Center, Jerusalem. Tel: 02-6244331.
There is more on Chefs for Peace at Israel21c.org – search for Chefs for Peace.
Fresh cooked nettles taste richly green. Not surprising, considering the high content of easily-assimilated iron and B-complex vitamins in them. Read Wildman Brill’s article to find out much more about the nutritious/medicinal properties of nettles. I noticed, looking at the photos of American nettles, that most of our Israeli ones are softer-stemmed and less bristly. I’ve only seen really martial-looking nettles, the scary ones with thick, hollow purple stems and leaves as big as the palm of my hand, in the colder climate of the north country. Those I’ve picked too, with gloves on.
As the nettles are only stir-fried for this omelet, the stems stay firm and almost crunchy, contrasting with the softer vegetables. It’s a sturdy, satisfying dish.
4 eggs, lightly mixed
3/4 cup of fresh nettle leaves and stems, well rinsed and coarsely chopped
1/2 medium onion
1 large potato
salt (I used a rosemary/sage herb salt) and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
oil, butter or ghee for sauteeing
1. Peel and grate the potato; set it aside.
2. Chop the onion. Set it aside with the potato.
3. Heat the fat in a frying pan. Start to sauté the potato/onion over medium heat.
4. Break up any clumps of vegetables if any form as they are cooking. The potatoes should be cooked through and golden brown in 5-8 minutes.
5. Stir the nettles in.
6. Add your salt and pepper. Cook everything 3 more minutes.
7. Add the lightly mixed eggs, stirring to distribute the raw egg throughout the vegetables.
8. When the bottom of the omelet is cooked and brown, slide it onto a plate and reverse it back into the frying pan to finish cooking the top.
I knew that if I didn’t go out foraging today, the nettles would be past their prime. I called up my Mom.
“Want to go out for a walk in the sun? I’m going out to pick nettles.”
Any other lady of 87 would tell me to get lost. But I know Mom. She immediately said,
I knew she would. She’s loved the green, growing things all her long life, and her daughters have caught it from her.
So we set out out to do some urban foraging. I brought along the camera, a bag, and a pair of scissors. We didn’t need to go far, because right next to Mom’s is the abandoned garden, and plenty of nettles grow there.
I’ve been picking nettles so many years, the sting hardly bothers me anymore. I think it’s good for my carpal tunnel syndrome, anyway. But the smart way to pick nettles is to cut them with scissors and while the stems are still trapped between the blades, to pop the bunch into a bag or basket. Of course you have to deal with them later, but you can put on a pair of latex gloves.
The photo below shows the immature, green seeds. Once those seeds have turned brown and hard, the nettles aren’t worth picking anymore. Do you see the spiky “hairs” bristling on the leaf at bottom right? Those are the culprits that carry the sting.
Ah, but nettles are beautiful, mysterious things…
The sting, by the way, gets cooked out immediately upon contact with heat. Geese like to eat nettles raw, and I’ve read that when cattle eat them dried, mixed in their hay, their milk is richer. But I wouldn’t advise humans to put raw nettles in their mouths. Ouch.
It takes some work to get nettles clean. First, I cut off any roots, with the soil clinging to them.
But I don’t throw the roots out – I put them in an old plastic bottle with plenty of water, and let that infuse for a day or three. My houseplants love that water.
Then I sort the nettles out by length of stem. In sorting, I might find other plants that came along when I picked my nettles. I take them right out. This pretty clover and blade of grass have no business in my nettles…although such a tiny quantity is harmless.
Sorting makes rinsing and collecting into bunches for drying much easier. And they do need plenty of rinsing. Best is to let them soak in cool water for about 5 minutes ( don’t throw out that water – give it to your houseplants), then rinse. Then I hang ‘em up to dry. Depending on the weather, they’ll be crisp and dried through in about a week.
I harvest all the chickweed I need from my windowsill planters. Right now I have a lot drying for medicine: it’s excellent, made into tea, for eye infections. I also use it in the water part of a moisturizer I make. Finally, the young, leafy plants are very good in salad. Chickweed has a pleasant, somewhat salty taste. Here is some growing wild on the verge of a sidewalk.
Right next to the chickweed grows a stand of Pellitory of the Wall. This almost innocuous weed has a bright side and a dark side. On the bright, it’s a nutritious green that made into tea, works well as a diuretic and part of an herbal formula for expelling gravel from the urinary tract. On the dark, it flowers 4-5 times a year and about 20% of the population is allergic to its pollen.
Mom took my arm. We strolled over to a building whose front yard is covered in young mallows. She fielded questions from curious passersby. I photographed and harvested.
I like to eat the very small, tender leaves in salad. The big, coarse ones are good for stuffing, like grape leaves. This dish is traditional among Sephardim (and herbal folk like me). I’ve seen an old Sephardi lady wearing a headkerchief and a long, hennaed braid down her back, standing in a field of mallows, picking away.
Mallows were a valuable wild food during the War of Independence in 1948, when people were starving because the highways were blocked and there was no transportation of goods. Today, some people celebrate Independence Day by making old-time patties of chopped mallows, flour, and eggs. I mentioned this once to an elderly friend of mine in Tfat. He shuddered and told me he abhors mallows. They remind him of the hard times, when his mother would make him go out in the fields and pick them, and that’s all they would have to eat.
I don’t have such sad memories, and so pick my mallows in tranquility. It’s great to have dried mallows in a big glass jar when I run short of something green to chuck into a soup.
I really wish dandelions grew in this part of the country. But they don’t, so I’ll probably go up north to Tsfat, come March. I know the haunts of the dandelions there. But here, the mild, semi-tropical climate allows folks to grow bananas, goiabas, mangoes, and even papayas. This papaya tree is one of two growing in a building yard not far from my house.
Ethical harvesting from the wild involves keeping certain principles in mind.
Recipes with nettles and other wild edibles will appear over the next week.
The first green wild plants start poking their heads up at about this time of year. Our rains have been sparse, but that moisture was enough to release the energy in the seeds of wild plants. Out foraging and taking pictures, I see clumps of nettles standing in neglected street-side corners, and remember how good they taste cooked with garlic and rice. So I stoop down and quickly gather a handful, ignoring the slight sting. Passersby stare for a moment, then walk on, thinking who knows what. Yes, it probably is a strange picture: a middle-aged lady with a camera dangling from her shoulder, picking nettles. I hope someday to be an old lady picking nettles.
It’ll be another month or so till the nettles are big enough to harvest in quantity. Their sting will be powerful then, and I’ll have to be cautious. I’ll go out with a bag and a pair of scissors, cut my nettles close to the ground, and bring them home to dry. At that time, I hope to post an old-fashioned recipe for savory nettles pudding.
Nettles fit into all kinds of modern recipes too. Steamed, sauteed with garlic and/or onions, combined with cheese, mushrooms, as a filling for crepes or ravioli – just recall any recipe calling for dark green leaves, and substitute nettles. I’ve heard it said ironically that with enough cheese and butter, any wild edible can be made tasty…but the rich, dark taste of nettles stands up to irony (and is good for raising hemoglobin). And – nettles taste nothing like spinach. It seems that whenever an author is at a loss to describe the taste of a wild green, he or she says it tastes like spinach. Nettles have their own flavor, not earthy like chard, not mild like green beans, nor yet bitter, like spinach – but their aroma sometimes reminds me of wakame seaweed.
1 cup of rice
1 Tblsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup of tender young nettle leaves, rinsed and chopped: a small handful
2 cups of boiling water or hot stock
1. Rinse your rice well to free it of dust. Allow it to drain in a sieve till no more water drips.
2. Heat the oil in a small pot and add the rice to it. Stir, covering the grains with a film of oil.
3. Allow the rice to heat through and change color slightly. Add the garlic, salt, and nettles. Stir well.
4. All the water or stock- carefully, there will be steam. Stir again and cover the pot.
5. Steam the rice on the lowest possible flame for 10 minutes. Check to make sure all the liquid is absorbed and the grains are tender all through. Let it sit a further 5 minutes before serving. If you like the taste, you might try using a full cup of nettle leaves next time.
It’s not only good, it’s good for you.
To forage for hawthorns, I traveled to Tsfat again last week.
In spring, I’ve picked the pungently sweet white flowers and made wine of them – have eaten the tender new leaves raw. But you have to wait till autumn to pick the little red berries, so like tiny rosehips. Right after Sukkot is the best time to harvest them, but although it was late in the season, there were still plenty when I arrived.
My field guide tells me that there are four varieties of hawthorn in Israel. Some bear big berries, some bear small. Although most have red fruit, one variety’s berries are yellow. The ones I know and from which I’ve made jam, wine, and medicine, are Craetegus azarolus, which grow in the wadi around Tsfat and in the surrounding Meron hills.
There are several entrances to the wadi. I chose this one because just beyond it grow two hawthorn trees I know well.
You have to go through the cow gate. There’s a herd of semi-feral cows that roam the wadi and outskirts of town.They’re peaceful enough, but if they can get into town, they will. Believe me, I’ve almost jumped out of my skin a few times, coming upon them in a dark street.
Just a few meters away stand the hawthorn trees. Their leaves were getting dried out, but the berries were still plump and sweet. Someone had been picking already, I could see, for the lower branches were bare. I think I know who it was.
Not many care about hawthorn berries, but my friend Leah does. We used to go out foraging together. I’m sure she got there before me this time. How can I be so sure? Well, she’s quite short. Although the upper branches were still loaded, all the berries from the lower ones were gone. So it must have been Leah. Or maybe it was the cows: a few fresh cowpats on the ground proved that they’d been visiting.
That wasn’t a problem. What you have to do is pull an upper branch down with one hand and strip the berries off the twigs with the other. Of course, you have to have a third hand to hold the bag you’re going to put the berries into. Lacking that, you hang the bag on a handy branch and get to work.
How lovely the late afternoon was, in the waning light. The birds were already settling down, peacefully twittering their evening signals. A few pine needles underfoot sent up a fresh, sharp smell as I trod them. The familiar trees were there – my heart expanded as I approached them and memories of the time I lived in Tsfat came rushing in. I stood still, breathing deeply. Autumn. I filled my mind with impressions to store up, for the wadi is a little different each time I visit.
So I pulled a branch towards me and started to pick, smiling to think of Leah who had been there before me and wondering if she had thought of me. Every once in a while, I polished the dust off one or two berries and popped them into my mouth.
The berries detach from their stems easily, and if a few leaves go with them, never mind, the leaves are good for you too. They slither through your fingers in a second if you’re not careful, though, and all your straining to hold a branch down will go for nothing. I made myself work slowly, but in twenty minutes my plastic bag was heavy with berries, about three cups full.
Hawthorn’s most important medicinal property is that it is a tonic for heart muscle. Herbalists recommend the tincture or extract of it to people suffering from mild heart disease. Eating the fresh berries works too.
There are other pleasant things about hawthorn. I’ve found it calms down palpitations coming from nerves or a hormonal surge. It restores a feeling of calm after a shock. It’s also helpful to take a dropperful of the tincture if you wake up in the small hours and can’t get back to sleep. In a little while you can return to bed and drop off again.
Most of the berries I picked, I gave to another friend. I have lots of hawthorn tincture from previous years, don’t need to make more. I even have a bottle of hawthorn flower wine that I’ve been keeping. I’ll dry the handful I kept and infuse a few berries into tea every day over the winter. Like all the rose family, they are high in flavinoids and vitamin C – and they taste good. Sweet, with an undertone of sour to balance it, like apples. Hmm…like many things.
We’ve only just had a taste of winter, making us thirsty for more. In spite of unrelenting blue skies , we hope for a change in the weather that will blow more rain our way. Meantime, the wild herbs have already started sprouting in the fields. The bunch of parsley I was rinsing for Mafroum (see recipe below) had several stalks of Shepherd’s Purse herb tucked away in the middle. I like the slightly peppery taste of Shepherd’s Purse and decided to just strip the leaves and heart-shaped seed pods off the stringy stalks, to chuck into the dish.
Shepherd’s Purse has astringent qualities that are especially valuable in drying up excessive bleeding. I give it, and have taken it myself, right after childbirth, to prevent hemorrhaging. It’s got plenty of nutrition too, but as the peppery taste is strong, I limit its presence in food to just a couple of stalks.
Leda Meredith’s book, Botany, Ballet, and Dinner From Scratch, has some wonderful recipes. One was vinegar flavored with garlic chive flowers. Now I have a handful of chive flowers in my windowsill pot. While I usually just let them go to seed, because I like discovering new little seedlings in unexpected places come next spring, making vinegar from them sounded attractive.
So I took these garlic chive flowers
and did this to them:
and now have this vinegar.
Leda’s book includes recipes for making your own vinegar. You go, Leda!