Thursday, 14 November 2013

Plantain Peregrinations

NAME: _Narrow Leafed Plantain (plantago lanceolata)

Haven't posted in a while, been a bit busy with a local food issue. Narrow leaf plantain (plantago lanceolata) is the name for the plantain that isn't a cooking banana. It's a green leafed low plant that you can look up online, and it's an introduced weed in Australia. It's also classed as edible, grows in quantity around our area and probably elsewhere as well, and no-one's really considered its culinary uses.

I tried it in all the time-honoured but unimaginative methods that wild food people seem to suggest - steam it, use the seeds in stews, in a salad since it's a leafy green. The last one is a bit strange - it's the equivalent of saying "cabbage (or silverbeet) is a green, so you can just make a salad with it. It doesn't work with strong flavours like that, and plantain is bitter. So in this instance "edible" came with qualifiers that I didn't llike.

So my first order of the day was to get rid of some of the bitterness without losing the nutritional value (whatever that may be, see NOTES) of the vegetable. Enter Sandor Katz and his excellent books and website on wild fermentation. The rest, as they say, is history.

The thing that turned out the best for me has been a cross between pickling and wild fermentation, followed by processing as per normal. I dealt with the plants in mid spring, when the flowers have grown and dropped, and the seed production is about to start. It is a weed after all, so we should comply with directives to pull it up and prevent it reseeding. I just couldn't deal with the entire patch at one time....

I pulled up entire plantain plants roots and all, then cut the bunches and pulled out the flower head stems and browned leaves (about 10% of the leaves had too much browning for me to want to try them) and fed those to my livestock. About four large plantain plants was enough leaves around 15cm - 25cm in length to almost half fill a shopping bag.

These were taken indoors and to the sink, where I washed them, cut of the rest of the stemmy bits for the livestock, and pushed the leaves into around a one litre glass jar that has been sterilised for preserving. (A coffee jar was fine.) Then I made a hot brine by boiling about 1.5 litres of water with 5 dessertspoons of rock salt, allowed that to cool a bit, and filled the jar to the top, shaking often to get bubbles out, pressing with a wooden spoon to make sure all the air really was out between the leaves, and closed the jar up.

It takes about a week for the bitterness to migrate out of the leaves and the water will go a bit darker when that has happened. At that stage, you can use the leaves cooked with spinach or silverbeet, or as a last minute addition to a meal for the greens, or (this is about to be tested) with cooked fettucine pasta and lightly fried in olive oil with onion and garlic, pasta added last.

The seed or flower heads are quite solid, not quite as bitter as the leaves, and frying in butter seems to make them quite palatable. Could be used as a green addition to a stew or other meal, or in a stir-fry. Seems the salted butter is needed though to take the edge off first. (Or maybe I'll try experiments to test salting and brining before use, if so this article will be updated.)

As I said, leaves are a good supplemental green with stews and the like, or as a side dish. Once brined, I imagine that it would also be great in a frittata or vege/egg style bake. The seed heads make a good vegetable added to stews.

I'll add recipes as I try them and find them to be good, because this is another example of a good resource being wasted because of the classification as a weed.

I have no idea the nutritional value of plantain. Because it IS a weed, it by definition is good at absorbing nutrients from the soil, so it should provide a load of nutrients. Because the brining process will tend to concentrate the nutrients, that should make it a valuable supplement to meals.

Also because it is so good at absorbing things from the soil, perhaps avoid using plantains that grow by roadsides or other possibly polluted spots, to avoid ingesting whatever they may have gotten from here. (Roadsides = lead, rubbish tips etc = every industrial pollutant known to man, to name just two bad locations to harvest from.) It's probably still better for you at that than a commercially grown spinach or lettuce, but when a walk of a hundred yards more can get you clean healthy plants, why not go the extra?

Also, if a plant was to somehow able to drop seeds in a clean spot, the resulting plants wouldn't have any traces of the pollutants, so as self-seeded plants progress away from a less desirable are, they'd be okay to harvest.


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