Photography by Rosminah Brown

Invasive Plants and Pests

Eat Local Challenge

Each year Edible Santa Barbara challenges readers to pledge that during the month of October they will eat and drink only locally produced food products. While some participants choose to restrict their food sources to a specified radius from their homes, others define a specific region.

During October, I choose to pay careful attention to where my food was produced and give local foods priority. In the process, I have learned a lot about what grows here and what doesn’t. I have picked and dried pepper from local pepper trees, extracted salt from ocean water and learned about locally grown coffee, green tea and locally raised beef. So, when Rosminah suggested we each look at food resources in our own neighborhood and do a little foraging, I was on board.

Rosminah took the lead, gathering garden snails from a field near her house. She describes this field-to-plate experience that produced the most delicious snails I’ve ever encountered.

Rosminah’s Garden Snails

Snails are the bane of many gardens, lurking in damp dark corners, munching your favorite tender herbaceous plants, leaving slime trails and lumpy curls of droppings everywhere. Smashing them leaves a sticky crunchy mess and throwing them over the fence just moves the problem to someone else’s yard.

M. F. K. Fisher’s essay “50 Million Snails” from her Serve It Forth collection first piqued my interest in snails as food. She recounts a time in France when her host family spent days collecting and preparing them, the young children giddy with excitement of the coming feasts of snails. When they scrubbed each little shell meticulously and packed each snail with fragrant garlic and parsley in the butter sauce, I wanted to do the same.

Then somewhere at a roadside restaurant that I will never find again near the Belgian and French border, I ate an exquisite plate of garlic butter snails. My memory of that hole-in-the-wall restaurant experience has lingered far longer than the taste of the garlic sauce. Later, when traveling alone to Leuven in Belgium, I poked my head into a small Italian restaurant. The delightful four-hour meal included snails and mushrooms in a red wine sauce. When I moved back to the U.S., one shipping box contained a very large tin of escargots from my French friend Raphael to remind me of the meals we shared, local style.

Here at home, I discovered that our common snail is actually a culinary species introduced from Europe, called Helix aspersa, closely related to the commercially produced larger Helix pomatia. Referred to as “petit gris” (little grey) and “gros blanc” (large white) in France, both are plated up in French cuisine.

There is strong speculation that a French immigrant who craved the homeland delicacy imported the first ones, or maybe they were stowaways on the grapevine cuttings that created our modern wine industry. Either way, they escaped sometime in the mid-1800s and have ravaged California gardens ever since. We can, however, turn the tables on these pests. We can eat them.

Snails are a low-carb (even after adding the butter) paleo-friendly meal—a serving yields protein comparable to a serving of catfish. They contain essential vitamins and minerals and ounce-for-ounce more iron, potassium and magnesium than beef.

A way to rid yourself of a garden pest that also yields a nutritious meal? What’s stopping you? Grab a bucket and start collecting.

The common snail (Helix aspersa) is known in France as petit gris and is a delicacy.

Collecting and Storing Snails

Collect only in areas you know are pesticide and herbicide free. The drought has made it more difficult to find snails, but they are still out there. Look in damp zones, check under wooden boards and dense shrubs. Foggy mornings are best, but with a little rain snails will be out and about nearly all day.

Choose the largest ones to tuck away in your snail nursery. I used a large clay flowerpot with fine mesh set over the top to allow air circulation. Feed them vegetable trimmings, like lettuce, celery or fennel. Snails generate a lot of droppings, so clean out their nursery daily and give them fresh food. Mist the nursery down every day and keep it in a cool place out of direct sun.

Wild collected snails should be purged twice: first to clear out previously foraged food, which might contain things we don’t want to eat, and then to clean out the intestinal tract.

After at least five days of feeding them garden greens, I switched to dried oatmeal and milk. Over the next two days their droppings turned from green to white, indicating that the greens had passed through them. On the last day I withheld the oatmeal and milk to clean them out completely. It’s OK to apologize to them for this.

Cooking Snails

Be aware that wild snails should never be eaten raw or partially cooked. Like shellfish, they must be thoroughly cooked to kill any potentially harmful bacteria.

While you are bringing a large pot of liberally salted water to boil, put the snails into a colander and rinse them thoroughly. Then drop them into the boiling water and simmer for three to five minutes. Skim off any froth that collects on the surface. Rinse with cold water and pull each snail from its shell with a toothpick, small fork or pointed tweezers. Rinse again. They will still be pretty slimy at this point.

Fill a pan with three parts fresh water to one part vinegar and bring to a boil. Simmer the de-shelled snails for about three minutes to remove any remaining mucus. Rinse and drain.

Your snails can be used immediately (see recipe) or refrigerated for use later in the day.

Nancy’s Cactus Harvest

After a walk around my neighborhood, I decided to focus my contribution to Rosminah’s extremely local challenge on how to use all parts of the prickly pear cactus, including the white webbed cochineal beetles that infest aging cactus pads.

Spines and Glochids

As a spinner who uses local plants to dye alpaca fiber, my first thought when I saw a cluster of dark purple-red prickly pears was “I wonder if those would make a good dye.” That’s how I learned about glochids, the bristle-like hairs on the surface of the fruit that you can’t see until they are firmly lodged in your fingers and palms. While the longer spines are easy to avoid, only gloves and tongs will protect you from the glochids. And never try to suck a glochid out of the tip of your finger; it’s even more difficult to get one out of your lip or tongue.

So even though I often use cactus pads (nopales) from the market in stir-fries, and I love the taste of fresh prickly pear juice, I prefer to maintain my distance from the actual plant.

It was only when Ruben, a friend who grew up harvesting nopales with his dad, agreed to show me how to harvest and clean them that I regained my sense of adventure.

Nopales

The tall cactus with branching flat beavertail pads that grows near my house is the Indian Fig variety (Opuntia ficus-indica). Introduced from Mexico during the mission era, it has naturalized and become a popular culinary variety.

Reuben pointed to the young tender pads growing from the edges of larger pads. He sliced them from the parent pads. We layered these between paper towels in a plastic storage container until it was full.

Seated at a table, Reuben put the first nopale onto a clean dish towel. Using the edge of sharp thin knife, he ran the blade under small mounds that support each spine, then scraped the spines into a trash container. When both sides were spine free, he trimmed off the edges and the bottom.

After rinsing the nopale, he sliced it into strips, salted it, and we ate it raw. Nopales have a lemony tart flavor that I enjoy with tomatoes, green chilies, thin slices of red onion and salt. Their mucilaginous texture, while not visually appealing, combines well with rice and sautéed vegetables. They can also be added to soups and stews or cooked into cactus fries (see recipe).

Prickly Pears

Hold the fruit over the flame to burn off any remaining thorns.

While we were out foraging, we picked a few green prickly pears in the hope they might ripen on the countertop. They didn’t. Collect ripened red pears in the fall.

Whether green or red, however, they have plenty of barbed glochids. Handle them carefully with gloves and put them into a closed container if you are driving. The bristles blow off easily and seem magnetically attracted to the most sensitive parts of your body.

Some foragers take along a propane torch to burn off the glochids before they pick the fruit. I wore kitchen gloves at home, stuck a prickly pear on a fork and burned away the bristles using the flame on the stove.

Should you get a stray glochid in your finger that you can’t remove with tweezers, apply a puddle of white glue to the site and pull out the microscopic irritant when the glue dries.

Rinse and peel the fruit or cut them in half and scoop out and eat the fresh juicy flesh. Unpeeled cubed fruit can be blended with enough water to get the cubes spinning, then strained, or you can extract the juice using an electric juicer. See prickly pear syrup recipe here.

Prickly pears contain seeds that can be dried and ground into flour. The blossoms are also eaten and are said to taste like artichoke hearts when cooked in butter and garlic. The cactus typically blossoms in the late spring and early summer and fruits into the fall.

Fluffy white webs protect cochineal scale insects that can be used to make food dyes.

Cochineal

I found the fluffy white webs that protect cochineal scale insects on some of the older pads. Many years ago Botanic Garden docent Jill Mackay had demonstrated the magenta-colored fluid released by harvested cochineal. If you rub them between your fingers you get a scarlet red stain on your fingers.

In the past few years I’ve used cochineal to dye spinning fiber and I knew that the extracted carmine dye is used for red coloring in many food products and cosmetics. But in a recent discussion, Jill told me that back in England the pink frosting on her childhood birthday cake was usually tinted with cochineal food coloring. A quick search on the web verified that cochineal is indeed sold as liquid food coloring.

Using a couple of business cards as scrapers, I collected the white fluff surrounding the cactus spines and took it home to dry in the microwave. After setting my first batch on fire, I limited the bursts of power to 10 to 20 seconds. The fluff turned purple and crunchy. I ground it in a coffee grinder and poured boiling water on it to steep. The water turned magenta.

Cochineal dye changes color based on pH. So I divided it into three containers and added enough vinegar to turn one an orange-red, and enough baking soda to turn another purple. Then I made each into a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and liquid). I mixed a teaspoon of each with powdered sugar to create three colors of frosting.

In Reflection

Admittedly, it’s a fair bit of work to forage and prepare local snails, especially if it’s just a meal for two people, and it takes a lot of snails to feed a group. Cactus harvesting is not an easy task either. Meal prep would certainly take a lot longer if we had to forage for our food.

But this exercise did make us look a little differently at what we consider wild and pesky in our yards. Purslane, lamb’s quarters, mallow and dandelions all grow unwanted in our gardens. Instead of weeds, maybe we should think of them as seasonal salad greens. And it’s nice to know that they are always there—persistently growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, crowding into the flowerbeds or living on the underside of
a leaf… even during a drought.

Nancy Oster and Rosminah Brown met at Starr King Parent Child Workshop in the 1970s, a place where creative experimentation and appreciation for fresh food was encouraged long before it became fashionable. Forty years later, they apparently both still share an appetite for exploration and adventure.

Originally published Fall 2015

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