Living off the land in the city…questionable tips for the zombie apocalypse

Springtime is upon us and the garden is finally getting going. I live in a cold climate so it takes awhile for spring to come around. By this time I’m going a little crazy trying to put things I’ve grown into our meals. While some herbs are ready to eat, it’s still pretty slim pickings.

Suffice it say that those in Northern climates should all hope that a zombie apocalypse does not occur earlier than peak-harvest season. I’ve watched Walking Dead so I know these things can happen suddenly and without warning. Fending off zombies is certainly a concern, but there is also the daily challenge of keeping your mortal vessel intact and healthy. No easy task. What can you eat when you can’t go to the supermarket? Well, let’s assume you raid the suburban landscape first. Two easily recognized edibles at this time of year are going to be rhubarb and dandelions. You’re welcome.

Let’s start with rhubarb first. A good number of people find rhubarb too tart to make much use of. Well, suck it up, there are zombies! If you grew up in a place with rhubarb, you were probably told repeatedly not to eat the leaves. They are indeed poisonous if ingested in high quantities due to oxalic acid.

Rhubarb! You might have this tart treat growing in your back  alley.

Rhubarb! You might have this tart treat growing in your back alley.

Symptoms of Oxalic Acid Poisoning:

  “ one might experience weakness, burning in the mouth, death from cardiovascular collapse; on the respiratory system – difficulty breathing; on the eyes, ears, nose, and throat – burning in the throat; one the gastrointestinal system – abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea; and on the nervous system – Convulsions, coma.”

If you experience these symptoms, please stop eating the rhubarb. Clearly you have had quite enough. But on the plus side, oxalic acid can clean your motor or your stained wood (…no, that wasn’t a euphemism). Check it out here if you don’t believe me.

In all seriousness, oxalic acid is a product found in spinach, kale, parsley, beets and a long list of things that you probably eat regularly. Safe to say, you don’t have to be overly alarmed at ingesting a bit of oxalic acid. Still, if you’re ever curious regarding the edibility of a plant species you can consult Plants for a Future database.

Of course, rhubarb is great in pie or a sauce with vanilla ice cream. But those desserts might not be top priority during a zombie apocalypse. I had heard that rhubarb was good in savoury dishes, including accompanying meats, such as pork and chicken. I figure it will bring a sweet-and-sour flavour, which I’m really quite a fan of. I find this simple recipe online and I’m a go. It even calls for parsley and thyme, which are the only two things I have thriving in the garden.

Side dish? Oh, there’s dandelions! Aside from the issue that *someone* seems to be providing lawn maintenance during the zombie apocalypses in TV depictions, I think it’s safe to say that during a real zombie apocalypse we can expect some pretty solid dandelion harvesting.


No shortage of them on my property sans zombies. I’ve been keeping our lawn au natural for years and just digging them out by hand so I figure mine are fairly free of pollutants. I’ve developed the nifty trick of paying my kids $5 to get of all my dandelions. With the bonus that I will show them how to cook them so they are prepared in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Is that not totally fun? NO? Well, they needed a break from their electronic devices in any case.

Dandelions. All the goodness of lettuce with half the taste!

Dandelions. All the goodness of lettuce with half the taste!

I’ll say this…the kids enjoy the harvesting and they’re quite interested to learn that things they’ve been walking by every day are edible in the same way as what they find in the grocery store. I think that’s rather splendid. I launch into diatribes about how rhubarb is in the same family as buckwheat and dandelions are in the same family as sunflowers, lettuce, and artichokes. But other than a few bland, polite smiles, these facts do not appear to amuse them. Cutting things and digging things does and I leave them to it.

Our rhubarb harvest!

Our rhubarb harvest!

Dandelion has glycosides together with other alkaloids, terpenoids, etc. Of course even you’re daintiest abrosia is going to have a slew of things that sound nasty if you’re going to go about labelling them like that. You can call sugar dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-2-yl oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol, if you’re determined to make it downright toxic.

More intriguing, however, is that Asteraceae, of which dandelions are card-carrying members, has some rather unique chemical properties,

 “Even common garden lettuce contains alkaloids that are comparable to opium alkaloids; and the sap of wild lettuces has long been used, as opiates are to this day, to ease severe pain.”

Say what?

Well, who can’t use an opiate now and then I say*. I mean, if this zombie apocalypse food, these little tidbits can come in handy.

  • *Disclaimer: I’m freaking kidding. Most lettuce species produce lactucarium, which shouldn’t be used for the purposes of intoxication. It only provides mild sensation of euphoria so it’s hardly worth the bother. Whatever gets you eating salads I guess.

Chemicals aside, I was still 99.9% sure I wasn’t poisoning the family with this brew (or making them high) with the numerous reports of edibility in this species. However, it often reported how bitter they are and my nibble of a raw leaf tells me they’re not kidding. I find this recipe that seems like it has ample masking agents.

Soaking the dandelions in salt water to remove the bitterness. mmmm...doesn't that look  good? No, it really doesn't.

Soaking the dandelions in salt water to remove the bitterness. mmmm…doesn’t that look good? No, it really doesn’t.

The rhubarb chicken recipe was actually okaaayy…I would suggest for next time less rhubarb…as in cut it to zero.

Rhubarb chicken...needs...less rhubarb I think

Rhubarb chicken…needs…less rhubarb I think

It wasn’t bad…it’s just that the tanginess of the rhubarb didn’t seem to bring anything to the taste table. There was no happy mingling of flavours. But the chicken was tender.

The dandelions?…ahem, generally I’m a backer of eating local and seeing the value of our backyard biodiversity…but I’ll be waiting for the zombie apocalypse before I’m making dandelions a big part of my diet.

The reviews from the kids:

“Yucky!” from the six-year old.

“Dandelion greens a no-go and the chicken quite tart” from the 11-year old.

In short, this was pretty much a fail. Considering the Western diet doesn’t incorporate a lot of Polygonaceae, it was a dish that brought considerable diversity to the table. Of questionable merit in this case, I’ll concede…

Lots of diversity in this dinner...too bad it tastes awful!

Lots of diversity in this dinner…too bad it tastes awful!

As you can see, things are going to start looking pretty bleak for the few survivors when the zombies come. I’m a biodiversity scientist and clearly not a chef! I can tell you what’s edible but it will be up to the capable pros like Happiness by the Acre and Galloway Wild Foods to make things tasty. When the zombies come, stay close to them.






A Tale of Three Tomatoes

The tale of three tomatoes is epic. One of suspense, romance and intrigue. But I must digress first to tell you how I did cook something. Moussaka.

My choice for going the Moussaka route was two-fold. The first reason is that the last time I cooked an eggplant dish I bought an extra eggplant and it was languishing in the fridge. The second reason is that I tried moussaka once in a Greek restaurant and I really liked it. I didn’t realize that moussaka is the half-marathon of the culinary arts.

There is a lot of variation in moussaka recipes. I know this because I googled moussaka recipes and all of them seem to involve cooking the potatoes and eggplants before cooking them yet again in the casserole dish. Cooking twice? Really? I felt sure that I had stumbled upon a string of sadistic freaks and continued googling recipes for nearly an hour to find a way around what seemed like a cruel and horrible extra step. Yes, I see the irony. It was twice the time it would have taken me to actually do the extra step.

No dice. It seems that is the moussaka way. I ended up making an amalgam recipe through my thorough research however. I suppose it came closest to this one:

4 potatoes

1 large eggplant

some olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 lb beef

1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 spoonfuls tomato paste

1/2 cup red wine

400g can Italian chopped tomatoes

healthy sprinkling of dried breadcrumbs

Bechamel Sauce:

½ c. butter

1/2 cup flour

4 c. milk

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

150g kefalograviera, coarsely grated – yeah, right. Let’s try parmesan

3 egg yolks – I’m not throwing egg whites away  – went with 2 eggs, the whole thing

You can see I’m already getting cocky substituting ingredients. I’m not driving across town to find kefalograviera cheese. I’m just not. I also see no point in throwing away egg whites. Some chicken worked hard to make that.

It turns out that my oven has a broiler! And I know how to use it and I broiled those little eggplant slices after I had salted those little puppies and let them sweat out their little juices and patted them with a little paper towel. I’ve had worse days at the spa than those eggplant slices had that day.

Mollycoddled eggplant. I basted olive oil on these suckers after they had been "brined" for 20 minutes. Lovingly, of course.

Mollycoddled eggplant. I basted olive oil on these suckers after they had been “brined” for 20 minutes. Lovingly, of course.

Now the sauce is worthy of mention. Many recipes called this a béchamel sauce, which gave me quite a thrill. I’m a Downton Abbey fan and I envisioned myself as Daisy fretting about the béchamel and Mrs. Patmore shaking her head I hadn’t known what they’ve meant by it, but can now report that it is merely a milk sauce.

my béchamel turned out okay, Mrs Patmore! In fact, because there’s cheese in it I now know that this is actually a Mornay. Take a page, Mrs. Patmore. Watch and learn. I’m just kidding Mrs. Patmore. I apologize for my impertinence.

my béchamel turned out okay, Mrs Patmore! In fact, because there’s cheese in it I now know that this is actually a Mornay. Take a page, Mrs. Patmore. Watch and learn. I’m just kidding Mrs. Patmore. I apologize for my impertinence.

The moussaka was quite good and, despite the rather finicky nature of the dish, I can see myself making it again. As for the diversity in the dish, it does rather well.

moussaka_pd_treeThough really, other than an extra hint of colour coming from the allspice, we’ve hit the same families as last time (Amarylidaceae: onions, garlic; Myrtaceae: allspice; Solanaceae: potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes; Oleaceae: olive oil; Myristicaceae: nutmeg; Lauraceae: cinnamon). Mind you, I’m only marking the plant diversity, not that coming from animal sources, which is admittedly full of nutrients as well.

Now, you have of course noted that Solanaceae was featured 3 times!!! Three members of the nightshade or tomato family….hmmmm…there’s a story brewing there…The Tale of Three Tomatoes.

This story stems from me trying to explain to my kids the idea of why I chart traits on phylogenies and why phylogenetic diversity would matter. Why does it matter if you keep eating the same things over and over as long as they are nutritious? To answer that question, we will take you on a journey…

As I began to recite the story my kids got excited and starting to give me rapidfire feedback. My daughter and her friend started providing illustrations on TuxPaint. My son, disgruntled with their typos (I think they are cute), shook his head and thought the least he could do was provide a proper starting tomato (this boss dude)  Monster_Giant_Tomato

and some backstory. So without further ado:

“Once upon a time, there a population of Arcane Tomatoes (pictured above), the mighty Lycopersicons. They were peace loving but could be fierce warriors if provoked. As time went on, there was an event in their history known as the Great Divide, the circumstances of which are the thing of legend…”

Disclaimer: I hope this goes without saying but this is not scientifically accurate.

Disclaimer: I hope this goes without saying but this is not scientifically accurate.

As time went on, Canadian tomatoes had sex with other Canadian tomatoes, American tomatoes had sex with other American tomatoes, and other Mexican tomatoes had sex with Mexican tomatoes (Crossborder traffic waits were horrendous so all cross border matings ceased). Yes, tomatoes have sex. Lots. These little hedonists are just crazy for it and it’s a wanton bitrophic orgy come springtime. But that is a story for a different time.

Suffice it to say for now that the three tomatoes went their separate ways. My son assures me that each had their specific powers: the Canadian tomato is magical, the American tomato has super strength, and the Mexican tomato has superspeed and dexterity. [I’m not sure what the American tomato is so impatiently waiting for but the artists were sure that it fit with this particular tomato’s personality. I don’t think there is any political commentary attached to this].


Now, you’ll notice that this northward migration has consequences. The Northern two tomatoes started making more Vitamin E to combat the cold (this part has some truth to it, see Tammy Sage’s research) but the Mexican tomato kept pumping out the Vitamin A.

So there you have it. You need Vitamin A and E in your diet. If you are only going to eat two tomatoes, which two would you eat out of these three? Bet you picked a pair that optimized the phylogenetic diversity!

Hmmm…I guess if you just ate two that means that one tomato survives to be the Ruler Supreme. Would it be the one with Magical Powers or the one with Super Strength? …to be continued….

aubergine…’cause that just sounds fancy

So let’s begin. I am a plant biodiversity scientist. One aspect of my research focuses on what plants animals eat. Humans aren’t terribly different from other animals in many respects but our choices in plants are somewhat different because:

1)   we cook plants and this changes their edibility

2)   our choices may reflect price rather than abundance

I became interested in what plants were edible and why they might be abundance or cheap in a supermarket from an academic perspective. But now with 2 kids with typical fussy diets and my own curiosity piqued, it’s become a hobby to expand the plant choices in our diet. Research to date indicates that the more diverse your diet, the more you hit nutritional targets. So it’s not all about just getting 5 servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet. It’s also about making those 5 servings represent a certain level of diversity. And let’s face it, eating just apples and carrots gets a bit boring. Even a non-foodie like me can appreciate that.

Am I good cook? Hell, no. I stink at it. I tend to be lazy, eat whatever is easiest to make my stomach stop grumbling, and whatever will absorb the vast quantities of wine that I pour down my throat at the end of a hard day. And that’s the real purpose of this blog. To get better, more adventurous, and maybe have a laugh along the way.

I have no aversion to fruits and veggies. I actually eat quite healthy. But, I mean, I don’t even bother to peel my carrots. My diet is a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and I tend to drink my stress away. Oh, did you think this was a nutrition blog? Um, sorry about that. No, not a nutrition blog exactly. But there are nutritional elements I tell you. Or at least I hope so.

3 large red chillies, deseeded and stalks removed, chopped

6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped

2 tbsp ground turmeric

1 tsp chilli powder

2-3 aubergines (about 600g/1lb 5oz), quartered lengthways, then halved

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp sugar

6 shallots, finely chopped

1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

400ml can coconut milk

400ml vegetable stock or water

small bunch coriander, roughly chopped, to serve

serve on a bed of rice

This lovely recipe seems like a good place to start. It seems like a botanically diverse dish for sure:

Chillies, aubergines (eggplants) – Solanaceae; Garlic, shallots – Aliaceae; Ginger, Turmeric – Zingiberaceae; Lemongrass, rice, sugar – Poaceae; Olive oil – Oleaceae;  Coconut – Arecaceae; Coriander – Apiaceae. Lots of different flowering plants represented. Gives a gal like me the happies. Awesome!

So I scamper off to the supermarket to get these ingredients, some of which I’ve never cooked with before. First hiccup, nothing labelled “red chillies”

No “red chillies”. Eep. I went for the Habenero (orange ones, centre left). Go big or go home.

But thankfully, they offered a handy chart that allowed me to find something in the mid- to high- range of hotness. What is a Scoville Score, you ask? Good question.

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

According to, hot peppers are hot because they contain capsaicin oil and a Scoville ranking is how many units of sugar water has to be added to the extract before it isn’t hot anymore. The more sugar water added, the higher the score, the hotter that spicy pepper gonna be. So I went for Habenero, largely on a guess, but the chart was useful for preventing me from buying the ones that were going to make my children cry.

I march home and the kids are pretty excited that mom is in adventure-mode. I realize quickly that the first instruction is to “pulse” the peppers, garlic, lemongrass and ginger. This requires some sort of food processor I presume. I don’t have one. Ever the resourceful one I find this antique mortar and pestle lying about the house and figure I can put the kids to work banging the crap out of these minced ingredients. I even take this as a “country kitchens” photo op. I’m pretty proud of myself at this point.



The kids oblige. They are having fun!

For about 5 minutes. With the lemongrass still in fairly solid large lumps I figure it will have to do and set my 6-year old at putting the turmeric and chili powder on the eggplant slices. Gotta keep ’em happy.


Did she wash her hands? No idea. But these eggplants are about to get the cooties fried off them I figure.

At this point I’m realizing why I don’t cook much. I look around. This is not a quant country kitchen. This is my place. Do not be deceived. This is what it really looks like.

Welcome to the real. We can't all be Martha Stewart.

Welcome to the real. We can’t all be Martha Stewart.

And yet, miracle of miracles, the dish works out! Whole family eats it! Yes!

finishedBut I know what you’re really thinking! Was it diverse? Would it provide a vast array of nutrients? Well, compared to a dish of poutine, very much so. But there were still a lot of the branches in the tree of flowering plants that we left out. Below gives you a quick visual. There are ~300,000 species of flowering plants sorted into roughly 400 families. You wouldn’t want to eat them all, some of them are downright toxic. But we can eat many of them and eating more is better for our bodies and the planet. We can depict all the families as a sort of genealogy, called a phylogeny. There are so many different families they wouldn’t fit on the page but you can curve the family tree into these pretty radial figures. If I highlight where the species belonged in this dish, you can see from how slight the flecks of colours are that we just scratched the surface of plant diversity. Of course, one dish can hardly be expected to cover it all. So it was a good start!

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)