Monday, July 25, 2016

Meatless Monday: The Ubiquitous Prickly Lettuce

Prickles
Even in the midst of this year’s rainfall deficit in Connecticut  [currently down about 6 inches from its usual total], the wild urban plants continue to thrive. One of the most prolific inhabitants of the space between fence and sidewalk is prickly lettuce (Lactusa serriola), so named for the prickly spines on the underside of its leaves. An ancestor to today’s salad lettuces, Lactusa serriola is a member of the sunflower family and is native to Europe. 

Prickly lettuce has a basal rosette of pale green leaves from which rises a single hollow stem that can grow to 7 feet! Its alternate leaves are deeply lobed; they typically orient themselves vertically toward the sun, rather than horizontally, leading to the nickname “compass plant.” The tops of the leaves are smooth, but the bottom is prickly, particularly along the midrib [an easy way to distinguish this plant from the dandelion whose leaves have a somewhat similar appearance]. It has a long and sturdy taproot and spreads by re-seeding. Like its modern-day relatives, prickly lettuce grows best in nutrient-rich soils, but it can tolerate dry sites with poor soil, one of the reasons it thrives when lawns are turning brown!

Tiny flowers, gone by.

Pods starting to form.
Prickly lettuce was traditionally used in herbal medicine as a sedative and a painkiller, hence one more nickname, “opium lettuce.” Some modern day foragers gather and eat its shoots or smoke its leaves, but most authorities caution against harvesting and using this plant as it is known to have toxic effects. In fact, WebMD has listed a number of warnings to those who decide to experiment with this plant. They urge everyone to avoid eating wild lettuce in large quantities, but the site also lists a number of immediate dangers to ingesting even a small amount of this plant for those with medical conditions including enlarged prostate, an allergy to ragweed, or narrow-angle glaucoma, as well as for those taking prescribed sedatives or about to have surgery. As a food source, perhaps it is best to leave this lettuce alone.

The plant is particularly troublesome to wheat farmers because the buds can be difficult to screen out of grain. The latex can clog equipment. However, rather than demonizing the wild lettuce, Washington State researchers chose to explore its possibilities as a cash crop. They were intrigued by the milky sap the plant exudes from all its parts when it is broken. A 2006 study had found that the latex in prickly lettuce was very similar to the polymers in natural rubber. The WSU researchers began by mapping prickly lettuce DNA. The initial findings were published in 2015 and seem promising; regions in the plant’s genetic code were found to be similar to those of plants used in the production of rubber. This is indeed good news as the Brazilian rubber tree, our main source of natural latex, is threatened by disease; over half of our rubber products are now being made from petrochemicals. Perhaps one day prickly lettuce will be cultivated and our tires will be made from this wild plant.

Prickly lettuce has one other property I should mention. Peter Del Tredici, author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, states that this plant can be used in phytoremediation of urban sites contaminated by heavy metals, particularly zinc and cadmium. [Another reason not to eat prickly lettuce harvested from a parking lot.] 

I hope you have enjoyed this tale of a plant that you most likely have seen but may not have noticed. If so, you might also like to read my past posts on the wild carrot and purslane

Happy Monday!


I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Monday, June 27, 2016

Meatless Monday: Celebrate Summer

Eat Well. Stay Safe. Don’t Let the Bugs Bite!

Summer is in full swing, and it’s time to head outdoors to enjoy the long sunny days with family and friends.

Much as I like to cook, my summer game plan includes spending as little time in the kitchen as possible. I make lots of salads, some whipped up with canned beans and condiments from the cupboard, others more elaborate and based on what produce has come into season at the farmer's market. My key to success is to make sure I always have fresh greens on hand for a salad base, and to make extra grains each time I cook so that I can easily turn a simple salad into a meal.

As promised here is a link to all my blog posts on salads to get you inspired. They are in chronological order beginning with last weeks’s recipe. I can almost guarantee that there is something in this list to appeal to even the pickiest eater.


The time is now for this Danish treat!

Now that we have Salads covered, I want to share a couple of summer safety tips.

As tempting as it might be to run out the door and head to the beach without applying sunscreen or putting on a hat, keep in mind that in the northern hemisphere the sun’s rays are the longest and most powerful at this time of year. Unprotected exposure to intense sunlight increases the risk of skin cancer, particularly between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm. Be warned that while some sunscreens are long lasting and do what is promised on the label, others are inadequate. Each year the watchdog Environmental Working Group tests and rates sunscreens on the market; here is the link to this year’s list. Good Guide is another useful consumer tool, rating products based on safety, health, and environmental factors. See how your sunscreen performs here.

And don’t forget the dangers from insect bites. Even though I don’t plan to hit the tropics, the Zika virus has been on my mind. I visited the CDC website to see what they recommend for insect repellants and I discovered this excellent fact sheet. I then checked out the latest recommendations from Consumer Reports and I learned there was one repellant, Sawyer Picaridin, that is effective for at least eight hours against the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus, the Culex mosquitoes (which can spread West Nile virus), AND deer ticks (which can spread Lyme Disease). Here is the link to the report. Sawyer Picaridin can be purchased on Amazon as well as in a number of big box retailers; here is a store locator.

I'm all ready to enjoy some time outside the kitchen. I hope you are, too.

Eat well. Stay safe. Don’t let the bugs bite!

Happy Summer! Happy Meatless Monday.


On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Meatless Monday: Summer is for Salads

It’s the first day of summer! And the weather in New England is glorious at the moment. With such perfect weather it is a shame to spend too much time indoors. In our house, summertime is salad time, especially now that fresh local greens and berries are making their way to our farmers’ markets. With some careful planning before you go to the market, and a bit of advance preparation on the weekend, you too can stock your fridge for a week’s worth of salads.

In all my years of Meatless Monday blogging I can’t believe I have never shared this favorite recipe — a riff on “Kidney Bean Salad” from Recipes for a Small Planet, by Ellen Buchman Ewald, first published in 1973. This easy to prepare salad is versatile and economical; it can be altered depending on the ingredients you have on hand, making it perfect for a surprise invitation to a potluck. Served on a bed of greens with a side of bread it is all you need for a quick dinner on a hot summer night. It stores well in the fridge and makes a wonderful grab and go lunch for the office or a spontaneous picnic. No need for those high-price containers from the deli section!

The original recipe follows with my changes in brackets.

KIDNEY BEAN SALAD [AKA Three Bean Salad]
6 portions; 1 portion=approx. 7 grams of protein



INGREDIENTS
  • 1 cup dry kidney beans [1 small can kidney beans + 1 small can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained, + 1/3 lb. fresh or frozen green beans, lightly steamed]
  • 1 green [red] pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped onions [Vidalia]
  • 1 teaspoon crushed or minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil [extra virgin]
  • 1/4 cup wine vinegar
  • 1/8 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tomato catsup
  • dash [or 2 or 3] hot sauce
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley [Italian] 
  • 1 cup yogurt whisked with …1/4 cup milk powder [Greek yogurt]

DIRECTIONS
  • Combine the beans, pepper, onions, and garlic.
  • Make a dressing of the remaining ingredients EXCEPT yogurt and milk powder.
  • Pour the dressing over the bean mixture and toss gently. 
  • Refrigerate at least one hour.
  • Just before serving, stir in the yogurt mixture.

Optional additions: chopped cucumber and/or celery. NOTE: I chose not to stir the yogurt into the mix. I prefer to top each salad with a scoop of Greek yogurt, some crumbled feta cheese, or some grated sharp cheddar. The salad stores better that way.

Enjoy your time outside the kitchen! And come back next week for a complete list of the salad recipes I have shared over the years.

Happy Summer! Happy Meatless Monday.


On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”