Monday, August 25, 2014

Broadleaf Plantain

Now is the time of year when I'm really starting to get into putting food by. I always feel a little more secure knowing that my food stores will see us through the roughest weeks of winter. I don't currently put up enough food to not have to shop for groceries at all, but I try to keep enough on hand to keep grocery bills modest and provide a bit of safety in case of winter weather emergency. Any time I can get free food to put by, I'm thrilled.

Broadleaf plantain  (plantago major) is such a food. It's nutritious, versatile, free and easy to preserve. The seeds are rich in fiber and are a great way to add back some nutrition to white-flour based baked goods. They make a nutritious tea and can be added to a variety of dishes.

It's insanely easy to harvest and preserve. The day before you mow your lawn (so the stalks have plenty of time to mature and you get the largest stalks possible), simply walk around the yard and yank up any large stalks that are mature. What you are looking for is green stalks with the slightest bit of brown on the tips of the seeds. If it's pure green, they aren't fully mature and will be harder to strip. If it's pure brown they are also harder to strip and may be too old. Get at least a huge handful to make it worth the effort. It's best to let them sit for a couple of days on the counter before stripping the seeds. This lets the stalks dry out just a little so they don't break as easily.

I like to watch gardening videos on youtube while stripping them. It's mindless work, and gives me an excuse to sit down and relax with another Wisconsin Vegetable Gardeners video. To harvest, simply grasp the stalk at the top and pull your fingers towards the bottom while holding the stalk over a large bowl or cookie sheet. You'll end up with a small handful of tiny seeds. Some seeds will scatter, so it's best to do this at a table so you can sweep them up. 

After you have them stripped, you can air dry them. I simply put them in a thin layer on a cookie sheet, and throw them in a cabinet for a couple of weeks (or a couple of months by the time I remember). When they are fully dry, put them in an air tight jar. If you want to speed things along, use a dehydrator on a low-medium setting and check after a few hours, or use a low oven. 

To use them, you can either make a tea by pouring a cup of boiling water over a heaping tablespoon of the dry seeds.  This has a grassy flavor, but it is not unpleasant. My favorite way to use them is to add fiber and nutrients to baked goods. I replace up to 1/5 of the flour in a recipe with ground up plantain seeds when making pizza dough, highly flavored muffins, or even pancakes. If using a smaller amount, the taste isn't noticeable, but if you want to use a larger amount, make sure that there are other strong flavors to outweigh it. I've even mixed a small amount into granola.

If you are making tea, you can leave them whole. If you are adding them to baked goods, it's best to grind them up. I usually just pinch a small amount and smash them with my fingers a bit. If you want a more uniform grind or want to grind a large amount at once, use a blender or coffee grinder and then work through a sieve, regrinding the larger pieces as needed. These store really well over the winter. The longest I've kept some in storage was a year and a half, and they weren't rancid at that time, so feel free to put up a lot.

The leaves are also edible, but are best when young and tender. Harvest them while small and use like you would spinach. You could also dehydrate some of the leaves to add to your veggie powder jar. You can also use leaves of any age as a poultice for wounds. Just mash/chew up a leaf or two and place on the wound. Place a bandage or cloth over the area to hold in place. The young, softer green shoots can be steamed or stir-fried.

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