Have You Wondered What Milkweed Tastes Like?

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It was a cold day at the beach.  As storm clouds rolled in overhead, I rolled out.  Just before passing Lake Shore Drive on my bike, I noticed a patch of restored land I’ve never worked on with the Park District.  The people working here, the contractors, planted many grasses as well as the usual forbes.  Upon noticing a couple of tiny milkweeds, I was reminded of what limited time I have to enjoy the shoots and leaves of this plant.

I make a point not to eat much milkweed, since it’s a native plant that attracts pollinators and Monarchs.  But eating plants does allow us to get to know them more intimately, and milkweed is a tender, relatively worthwhile forage.  The unopened buds a lot like broccoli.  Plus as the name implies, it is weedy.  Once the plant gets larger than seen in the photo below, its flowers and seedpods can be utilized.  According to many sources, the leaves and stem are best eaten when just unfurling, or under 8 inches in height.  According to “Wildman” Steve Brill, the young upper leaves are only edible through mid to late spring.  I’ve noticed there tend to be a lot of “late bloomers” in the milkweed family, like those below.  I’ve seen flower buds  just opening well into summer, but for the most part, the upright-positioned seed pods start to form early to mid-summer.

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a couple of small common milkweed plants, left

Common milkweed has oppositely oriented, oval, slightly fuzzy leaves and unique little 5 petaled flowers that grow in radial clusters like pom-poms.  Only during the spring before flower buds form can milkweed be mistaken for its mildly poisonous neighbor, dogbane.  Dogbane is a native plant that likes to grow in similar areas as milkweed.   Dogbane has more of a reddish stem when mature and develops many branches.  Both plants are weedy, but milkweed seems more familiar to me–although dogbane isn’t uncommon.  Dogbane’s flowers look much different than milkweed, so any confusion would probably come in earlier stages of development.  There are a few varieties of apocynum, or dogbane, and all are poisonous.   As far as I can see, the most common is apocynum cannabinum; Apocynum means “away dog!” and cannabinum means “like hemp” because of its use in making cording.  The plant is commonly called Indian Hemp.  Both plants have oppositely-oriented leaves and bleed a white milky latex when cut.

When in doubt, don’t eat common milkweed.  When identifying the young plant, it may be helpful to use a magnifying glass to inspect stem for tiny hairs.  Be aware, and never eat a plant you can’t positively identify.  Milkweed is poisonous raw and some people can react negatively even after eating the cooked plant.  I’ve never experienced any ill effects from milkweed.  After positively identifying this plant, it’s generally it’s good to start off by eating just small amounts of the cooked plant.

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Brown-belted bumble bees seem to love common milkweed.  I believe we have one here, dressed in a fuzzy vest!

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If you’ll be utilizing flowers or buds, inspect for tiny larvae.  Begin by immersing in heavily boiling for 20 minutes, drain water, add new water and boil again for another 20 minutes.  More advanced foragers note that the customary double boiling process is unnecessary, but I always double boil milkweed.  In general, boiling eliminates bitter alkaloids, cardiac glycosides, and its sappy latex.  If you’ve boiled in a couple changes of water and the plant is bitter, you have the wrong plant!

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Boiling common milkweed 

Strain, and be sure to press out all remaining liquid.  By this point, the milkweed will be like a wad of mush.  To be honest, any plant that’s been boiled several minutes will taste somewhat bland and mushy.  This is not my favorite textural experience, but seems like standard method for many wild foods.  I’ve read of people changing water 4-5 times with smaller boiling intervals.  Seems like a lot of work, bringing water to a boil over and over like that.

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Notice the opposite leaf pattern and symmetry of asclepias syriaca, Common Milkweed

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And, simply because I love black and white plant photography:

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Besides looking really unique, this plant attracts interesting and colorful bugs including red milkweed beetle, western honey bees, and most famously, Monarch butterflies.  There are other varieties of asclepias, including swamp milkweed, asclepius incarnata, and butterfly milkweed, asclepius tuberosa.  Swamp milkweed is one of my favorite plants, though I haven’t seen much of it this year.  It has bright pink leaves and looks similar, if not larger than the butterfly milkweed pictured below.  I’ve read that swamp milkweed can be used much in the same way as common milkweed, but I’ve never used it, and don’t recommend it–I could be wrong, but it seems to be getting more and more scarce.

Butterfly milkweed is orange, with very similar flowers to common milkweed.  It is commonly found as a roadside weed, but doesn’t reseed as easily as common milkweed.  It prefers dry soil.  Interestingly butterfly milkweed does not produce a milky sap, either.

I have read that butterfly milkweed is poisonous and emetic–that’s enough to keep me from eating it!  Historically butterfly milkweed, also known as butterfly-weed, or Pleurisy Root has been considered medicinal–according to alternative medicine expert Karen Burgeron, perhaps the most valuable alternative medicine of all American species.  A warm infusion of the root extract can be applied as a warm poultice to burns, skin ulcers, and wounds.  Like many medicinal plants, it is said to have specific action on the lungs–but reports are vague, and I could find little evidence of how exactly people use it for lung afflictions.

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Do not eat butterfly milkweed.  It is considered a poisonous but suppodsedly an important medicinal plant when used topically.

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Milkweeds love Michigan, and several butterfly milkweeds are lurking just beneath our field of vision, hidden here behind curtains of grass

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Butterfly milkweed have oblong, narrow leaves and fuzzy stems.

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Milkweed seeds are expensive.  If you’d like to collect your own in the fall, simply take a seed pod and open–keeping seeds together–this is important, otherwise you will have to defluff a billion seeds.  You will want to remove the white fluff from the seeds to increase chance of germination.  Before defulffing, or pulling the fluff from the seed, store seeds in an open cardboard box lined with newspaper, and keep in a dry place.  Here comes the tricky part: when I worked in the Natural Areas department of the Park District, we would burn the fluff with a lighter.  This would make quite a show, and was a fun way to spend an afternoon at work!  My coworker Whitney and I would line up the seeds in heart and star shapes and watch the fire run along the seeds like dominoes.  Prairie plants like fire, right?  Well, perhaps the fire strengthens the seeds.  But I question to what degree.  I think if I was doing this on my own and didn’t need to plant a bajillion seeds over acres of land, I would do things more simply.  I would be sure not to separate the seeds after taking them out of the pod–this is worth repeating, because remember, if you separate all of the seeds at first, you’ll be defluffing hundreds of individual seeds.  Rather, take seeds out in a clump, and they’ll be all lined up and ready to be defluffed in groups.  Then store seeds in the refrigerator over the winter in airtight plastic bags, or plant immediately in the fall.

An Easy No-Rinse Cleanser You can Make in Minutes

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Basically this is the same toner as I’ve sold on etsy for years.  It’s now on my Facebook page.  While the recipes I sell have rose hip extract added and very special quality essential oils and flower essences, I want to share this simple recipe for those of you who like to make things yourself.  Even a simple version of this will work better than things available at stores.

A funny quality of marketing is to specify one product being for one skin type and another for another skin type.  But in nature, things are hardly so cut-and-dry.   One simple element of nature can be multidimensional and faceted beyond human imagination.  Some oils, like hazelnut, work well for mature skin because of antioxidant activity, tonify oily skin because of tannins, and moisturize dry skin.  Nature is remarkably versatile.  Similarly, this toner will work for all skin types; it works as a humectant, drawing moisture to the skin, cleansing, and contains youth-promoting alpha-hydroxy acids, and cleansing enzymes and bacteria.

The recipe is similar to Honey Rose Hairspray (see right.)

2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

1/16 tsp. raw honey

3.25 oz. Rosewater

Rosemary, rose geranium, and lavender essential oils.

Please try to find true rosewater.  True rosewater is unlike any imposter, anti-inflammatory and refreshing.  For an example, I’ll post a link below.  Most rosewater brands available, even in Indian and Middle Eastern supermarkets, tend to be artificially “rose flavored.”  Ahmed makes a rather weak-but-true rosewater.  Cortas is higher quality, but my favorite is Hemani.  More upscale distributors use the words “rose hydrosol” because rosewater is simply a byproduct of the essential oil distillation process.   Many hydrosols exist, including lavender, pine, orange blossom, etc.  Rose is an exceptional choice for our purposes, is somewhat easier to find than others, and works very well in this recipe.

 

In Case You’ve Ever Wished to Eat Hairspray

Ok.  I’m not exactly thinking anyone would want to eat this!  But you could.  My mission for the past couple months has been to make a hairspray for my mom.  She’s a 60s girl, and you can tell because everything in her bathroom is coated with a fine layer of hairspray.  Her Aquanet served as a useful fixative back when I used to draw with charcoal sticks, but now I’m desperate to find something better.

Will this “hair spray” satisfy my mom?  I don’t know.  But in the process of trying to make her happy, I’ve come up with a versatile recipe that is cheap and easy to make, and I believe will work for all hair types.  It’s no Aquanet (thank God) but It works as well as any “natural” spray I’ve tried; many of which have very few natural ingredients.

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If you have wavy hair, this spray could be used to create a “beachy” look, kind of like the sea salt sprays that seem popular lately, without the drying quality.  It probably won’t hold a lot, but does offer definition and will help keep loose strands in place.  My hair is very, very fine, and I think it adds a little body and some lift.  As a side note, it also keeps my bangs from looking oily (those of you with fine hair know this tends to happen easily.)

Apple cider vinegar may actually encourage hair growth, because it gently stimulates circulation and counteracts harmful bacteria, which sometimes can lead to hair loss.  Cider vinegar naturally contains alpha-hydroxy acid.  Here’s what Paul Bragg says:

“The high acidity (organic malic acid) plus the powerful enzymes (the “mother’s” life chemicals) in ACV kill the bottle bacillus, a germ responsible for many scalp and hair conditions … (including) dandruff, itching scalp, thinning hair and often baldness.” According to Bragg, this bacteria can keep our natural oils from our hair. “The oil-starved hairs either fall out or break off, causing hair thinning and baldness.” Apple cider vinegar stimulates what he calls our hair’s “oil cans” for healthier growth.

Honey contains enzymes and natural hydrogen peroxide, and a host of antioxidants that can nourish the hair and scalp.  It is a humectant, meaning it attracts atmospheric moisture–exactly the opposite what many silicone ingredients in hair products do.  Silicones or the many ingredients ending in “cone” which can be found in haircare products, generally wrap the hair like plastic wrap, making it look smooth.  As a result, the hair becomes impermeable to atmospheric moisture.

Rosewater is a gentle anti-inflammatory, pH-balancing byproduct of rose oil distillation.  Please check ingredients; many, if not most, rosewater brands contain “rose flavor.”  This is not rosewater, and will provide no benefit whatsoever.  Upscale companies use the term “rose hydrosol” in exchange for rosewater to make this distinction.  True rosewater can occasionally but not always be found at Indian or middle Eastern supermarkets.  Over the past 10 years, I’ve found this to be increasingly less common.

The recipe is simple.  Almost too simple:

1tsp, cider vinegar

1/2 tsp. raw honey, melted

2 oz. rosewater

That’s all!  Whether or not it will work for my mom is up for debate.  But in the meantime I’m happy have this fun recipe and hope you find some use for it.

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Wild Cherries

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I am a lucky lady.  A friend of mine found a wild cherry tree dropping its precious fruit into an alley nearby where I live.  What a gem!  It seems the tree had largely been ignored until now.  How could it be? Wild Cherries grow in pairs and are unmistakably similar in appearance to bing cherries or other sweet cultivatars and vary from a gorgeous, otherworldly yellow/fluorescent pink to dark red, depending on variety.  In early spring, this tree produces showy white flowers preceding fruit.

This very special fruit it seems, has been an item of human food for several thousands of years.  In the 18th century Europe, the tree was presumed to have originated from somewhere in Asia, although prunus avium has more recently been trace to Prehistoric Europe, as far back as 2077 BC.  Dear wise Wild Cherry, it is a privilege to eat your fruit.

According to “Wildman” Steve Brill, these trees can be found everywhere in North America, but not Utah (?) He also states that wild sweet cherry trees are a  feral version of our cultivated cherry trees.  Seems probable, but I am confused by this, because other sources state that our cultivated varieties have come from prunus avium, as stated above.  I think in general there can be some confusion about feral, cultivated, and wild plants.  I will investigate further.

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Leaves of prunus avium are alternately arranged, oval, shiny, and finely serrated.

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CAUTION: Like store bought cherries, the pits of this fruit contain natural cyanide.  In small quantities, a homeopathic medicine; in larger quantities, deadly.  Foragers, note that you shouldn’t grind the pits into a flour.  I figure it’s worth noting, because it seems in the world of wild edibles, flours are highly sought after and experimented with.

Mulberries

People seem to either love or hate mulberry trees.  The people who love them, love them for the many practical benefits they offer.  In Traditional Chinese medicine, the fruit is regarded as a blood tonic and the leaves of mulberry are said to aid the lung and liver meridians.  Part of the leaves’ medicinal value is in their high flavonoid antioxidant and iron levels.  The antioxidant anthocyanin is particularly responsible for the purple color of many fruits and vegetables, including mulberries.  I haven’t used the leaves, but once I do, I’ll be able to make some suggestion on how to use them.

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Aggregated Mulberry fruits.  The round fruit is Juneberry.  Both trees produce fruit around the same time of year, from late spring to early summer.

 

Mulberry leaves are irregular; older trees have more rounded glossy leaves, and younger trees tend to have more asymmetrical leaves with deep irregular lobes.  I was under the impression that Mulberry takes about 7 years to fruit; a neighbor told me he had a tree fruit after 3 years, and according to Wikipedia, it takes about 10 years.  Regardless, the tree above has probably been cut back consistently for several years, as the leaves have a “young” look.  See below:

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More mature mulberry tree will have glossier leaves that are more round like this:

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You might think mulberry can be tricky to identify because of its inconsistently lobed leaf shape, with a look similar to sassafras, but sassafras leaves are much more consistently lobed.  Once the tree begins to fruit, a sidewalk riddled with black seeded fruits will be enough to help you identify mulberry from a mile away.  After picking these fruits, I left a trail of jam as I walked home!

There are two ways to harvest mulberries.  The first is akin to meditation, gently picking berry by berry being careful not to let them fall, as they so easily detach from their stems.  The second way is basically using a little American ingenuity and putting a sheet under the tree and SHAKING!  I go for the first method, since I live in a city, and prefer to not make a scene (let’s face it, some people think I’m crazy for even picking these berries at all!)  Plus I’m a little clumsy and the practice of picking berry by berry allows me to work on my dexterity.  Fishing with a net might produce more fish, but fishing with a line allows us to cultivates peace within.  I don’t fish at all, but the metaphor seems to apply well here.  I digress.  Now that we can identify mulberry leaves and fruit, what about further identification?

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According to “Wildman” Steve Brill, mulberry bark has distinctive vertical cracks or furrows, with occasion orange-brown streaks between cracks.  Oddly I recently learned that red mulberry trees are native and the white are Asian.  They’re so weedy, I’d previously assumed they were all invasive!  I also read that there are no poisonous berries with aggregated drooplet-type berries (mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, cloudberries, etc.)   By many, mulberries are considered a powerful superfood.  They contain iron, vitamins C and K, phytonutrients, zea-xanthin, anthocyanins, polyphenols, and even the ever-famous resveratrol.  Often considered a “superfood,” dried mulberries usually come with a steep price tag.  And yet, you’ll see these trees all over once you begin to look for them.  I like free!

Unfortunately city planners don’t.  They tend to make a mess and grow like weeds.  “Wildman” Steve Brill suggests encouraging the community to recognize the importance of this often undervalued tree.

Here’s his book, which I recommend: The Wild Vegan Cookbook (He suggests that you support him and buy new, if you can.)

He also has a nice phone app, that works basically like a field guide with minimal photos, but fantastic descriptions and a quirky sense of humor.  His descriptions are unique and come from personal experience.

CAUTION: The unripe fruit can cause dizziness, hallucinations, and nausea.  Unripe fruit of any kind is usually not recommended.

This article may contain affiliate links.  Thanks for your support!

Spicy Chocolate Fruit & Nut Bites

I make these all the time.  Too much to not be a little taken aback if I actually try to consider how many tablespoons of coconut oil I eat in a day.  I know moderation is important, but these little chocolates are heavy in superfoods as well as oil, so what’s to feel bad about in eating two… or seven?

Yes, so these are little coconut oil bombs.  I think I’ve made that clear.  They’re also flavorful and full of interesting crispy and chewy textures. Spicy from cayenne, and I even sprinkle a little sea salt on top.  Yes yes, I’m into flavor enhancement.  Forgive me, but I was raised on flavor enhancement.  When I first became vegetarian 13 years ago, I remember eating Popeye spinach from a can whilst patting myself on the back.  It was.. at least a (brownish) green stepping stone to who I am today.  Of course, now I can find mischievous hidden ingredients in anything – even raw foods – so I’m working on just appreciating, rather than judging, judging, judging.  Though, gotta say, judging food is one of my strong points.

Perhaps someday when I ascend from the sensory world and become an enlightened ascetic, I’ll give up salt and flavor without a judgement.  But for now, I like flavor, and boy can I judge salt.  Table salt, that is.  Did you know each grain of table salt is a perfect cube?  My college astronomy teacher said that he once saw chemists draw little dots on table salt to make tiny dice.  I feel like that’s not possible, but I know I can’t have made up something like tiny dice.  Regardless of whether tiny dice were made, we’re not supposed to eat perfectly square food unless it’s ice!  I know that sounds opinionated–but–they’re PERFECT CUBES!

I’m sure you know the healthier options: himalayan pink salt and gray salt are not processed and contain upwards of 20% trace minerals.  Basic table salt is processed at around 1200 degrees and contains 2% chemicals and zero minerals.  So hey, we can even have healthy flavor enhancers.  Salt is actually electrically conductive for the body, as well, but that’s another tangent for another day.  For more information on the electrical nature of the body, please look up Jerry Tennant, Healing is Voltage.  

Wow.  That’s a lot about salt for a chocolate recipe.  Just proof that ADD can be a good thing.

But I digress.  I can’t wait for you to try these.  I’d love to see what you add to them.  I sprinkle all kinds of dried fruits and nuts on these chocolates–whatever I have in my cabinets–but I always include goji berries, pecans, and raisins.

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Have you heard enough about the power of goji berries for one lifetime?  Gojis are adaptogenic and encourage the body to secrete Human Growth Hormone and help raise serotonin.  I’m sure you’ve also heard that they’re also a complete source of protein–quite unusual for a berry.  I won’t get started on zeaxanthin and lutein.  Let’s face it: they’re magical.

I’d love to see what you add to these!

SPICY CHOCOLATE FRUIT & NUT BITES

1/3 c Coconut Oil

.5 – 1 oz Cacao Butter, optional

1 Tbsp. Maple Syrup

1/4 c Raw Cacao Powder

Sprinkle cayenne

SPRINKLE ON TOP:  raisins, goji berries, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds; or be creative with smoked salt, lavender, etc.

Melt the coconut and cacao butter; coconut oil melts at 76 degrees and cacao butter, at 93 degrees.   Add maple syrup, mixing thoroughly, then cocao powder.  Spend awhile mixing, as the maple syrup rarely mixes completely.  Then add a dash of cayenne.  continue mixing, then pour mixture into small silicone molds to make bite-size pieces.

I use mini cupcake molds, filled about a third of the way.  If you make them too thin, they’ll crack when you unmold them.

Refrigerate or freeze; freezing may cause a slight color change to the chocolate, but gets the job done.. fast!  You’re gonna love these little bites, I know it.  Because, well, as you know, I’m addicted.

 

Buttery Walnut Zucchini Crackers

Last week while I was painting my mom’s deck, she tried to make quinoa burgers from scratch via the One Green Planet website; the recipe, written by Lee Khatchadourian-Reese, took a lot of time and in the end – the ‘burgers’ were nothing more than unbound piles of seasoned quinoa and mushroom.  Tasty with a spoon, but not at all what we were hoping for, since we wanted burgers!  This was a relatively cheap recipe to mess up, and had I been in the house with my mom, I would’ve suggested she add flax or some kind of binder.  Alas, we all have a chance to learn from mistakes.

I wonder if food/ recipe bloggers out there realize that they are wasting others’ time  and money by putting up ‘untested’ recipes.  Most likely they have good intentions, and understandably, testing recipes can be expensive and time-consuming.

It’s wonderful we have people we can count on for creativity, originality, and delicious recipes in the blog world.  I can’t think of a more tried-and-true food/recipe blogger than Rawtarian.  All of her recipes I’ve tried have been a success; I can tell that she truly makes and tests the recipes she posts.  Her chili is delightful!  Her cauliflower popcorn.. addictive.  Her Buttery Walnut Zucchini crackers.. my favorite!  Here is my adaptation:

ZUCCHINI CRACKERS

BUTTERY WALNUT ZUCCHINI CRACKERS with ROSEMARY

2.5 c. Walnuts, unsoaked

2.5 c.  zucchini, cubed

1/2 c. flaxseed meal

1/3c Hemp hearts

1 tsp. pink Himalayan salt

2-3 Tbsp. de-sprigged, chopped rosemary

COMBINE all ingredients in a food processor except the hemp hearts; you may grind the ingredients into a chunky or smooth dough; either way will work, the cracker will have oh-so much umame taste no matter what.  I usually try to keep some texture in my crackers, although the crackers photographed were pretty smoothly processed.

Mix in the hemp hearts.

Spread dough onto a Teflex sheet or parchment paper.

Dehydrate at 115 degrees for one hour, then score them (I use a spatula) and reduce heat to 105 until crispy like a cracker, about 12 hours.  You may be tempted to turn up the dehydrator, but my advice is to keep the temperature low, because hemp tends towards rancidity.

It’s nice to be able to fit everything for this recipe in one processor!  For years I used a Cuisinart MiniPrep mini 3 cup processor, because I was on a budget and believed Cuisinart was the only reliable brand out there.  Recently I upgraded to a larger Hamilton Beach, expecting that I’d just use it a couple months before getting a Cuisinart of the same size.  Turns out, I won’t be getting the Cuisinart–I love my bargain processor!

It grinds everything, is easy to clean, and best of all, it costs the same as the MiniPrep!

I usually cut the crackers into larger crisps, which I save in the freezer for whenever I want to make ‘personal pizzas’ or sandwiches.  Here, I have them with Raw Vegan Egg Salad.. if you like videos, I have this recipe on youTube

 

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Special thanks to Rawtarian.  I hope you love these raw crackers as much as I do.  Please see the original recipe here: http://www.therawtarian.com/raw-cracker-recipe-buttery-walnut-zucchini-crackers