Sunday, July 17, 2011

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina): Tart Summertime Refreshment

Finding: Staghorn sumac is such a common sight on the roadsides of central New England that one hardly need try to find them. Just drive to work and keep your eyes peeled. Ooga and Yub-yub were meeting me at the end of a long marathon training run when they decided to harvest a few. The big, red, fuzzy berry clusters are so distinctive. I often hear people referring to these plants as poison sumac, but poison sumac (Rhus vernix) has white, hairless berries that I can't imagine confusing with the fuzzy red "elf hats" we gather.

In July, when the berries become red, they are ready for making into an amazing and tart cold drink. The ones in this picture are a little on the early side, but we just couldn't wait for one of our favorite summertime refreshments. We gather about 5-8 depending on their size.

Preparation: Crush the flowerheads with your fingers into a half-gallon container. Cover them with cold water. Hot water makes it taste yucky! Then put it in the fridge for 24 hours. When the water blushes to the color of a raspberry iced tea, take it out and strain the flowers out. We use jelly bags now, but before we discovered these wonderful inventions, we used an old, clean T-shirt. It worked just fine. I love the tart flavor of the unsweetened drink, but adding a sugar syrup to taste is great. To make the syrup, add equal parts sugar and water and boil until the sugar is dissolved. We've tried just sweetening by adding sugar right to the liquid, but for some reason the results were always disappointing.

This concoction is a great way to pique the interest of folks who have never tried wild foods. I once served some to a skeptical bunch of middle-school kids who drank almost two gallons and then begged me for more.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata): Hidden in Plain Sight

I remember seeing this plant as a b0y. It grew as a weed in my mother's garden. It was one of those plants that I just never got around to keying out because, frankly, it looked boring. No big seed pods, no funky growth patterns, no sexy fruits or seeds. I often thought that I'd get around to keying that one out someday. Then I'd go do something important.

Our foraging friend, Arena, (a familiar name, no doubt, to foraging family readers) gave us some greens last year that she called galinsoga. We'd never heard of it and were having such a good time eating some of the exotic mushrooms that she'd gotten us that we forgot about it until it had wilted beyond recognition and any hope of culinary redemption. The other day, Arena gifted Ooga with some more.

Meanwhile, a good look at this plant while foraging for purslane in my mother's garden had reminded me of my oft-procrastinated resolution to key it out--a resolution that I promptly procrastinated because the purslane was so mouth-wateringly distracting.

So today when I found this patch of it growing in our very own meadow, I finally went in to get my dog-eared copy of Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (affectionately called The Duke after Duke Nukem from G. I. Joe). Well wouldn't you know it. Galinsoga. I ran back in to the refrigerator and looked in the goody bag from Arena. Sure enough. There it was.

Tonight we submerged it in boiling water for about five minutes, drained, and served as a side to a chicken dinner. It tasted very much like spinach or lamb's-quarters. We loved it.

Galinsoga might grow in your garden too. It has a cluster of composite flowers which means that each flower head contians a disc of lots of little individual reproductive bodies. The disc is yellow and is surrounded by five, widely spaced white petal that have three distinct lobes. These suckers are small so look carefully.
The leaves are opposite and coarsely toothed and the stems are hairy.

The can be easily distinguished from some asters that bloom at a similar time by their size and their distinctive three-lobed petals.

I know that in addition to being a great new edible for us, galinsoga will be a reminder that even the most plain-looking plants have worthwhile secrets for the enterprising naturalist.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pasture Gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati)

We've had our eye on this shrub since we moved into our house. It had never borne fruit. But this spring the electric utility cleared some trees around nearby power lines, and this shaded shrub has enjoyed full noonday sun for the nearly two months.

Lo and behold, that's what it needed to start producing its prickly, intimidating fruit. Our guides tell us that they're not ripe until red-purple. Anyone out there have experience with gooseberries? What do we do with them once they're ripe?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Return of the Native or The Story of a Foraging Revival (Black Raspberries)

We hadn't foraged in weeks. Between a crazy work month in June for Thag, marathon training, Yub Yub's busy social schedule, Ooga's new job, and Ooga's role in a local theater production we'd hadn't even taken a walk in the wilds. So when we travelled down to visit our parents in Connecticut for the Fourth of July weekend, I (Thag) stole an opportunity to get out. Ooga's parents were playing with Yub Yub. I had about two hours time. Where to go foraging in the suburbs? The town where our parents live is nearly wall-to-wall monoculture sod carpeting. I had once witnessed a man unloading nearly a liter of Roundup on a dozen sidewalk dandelions. There was little hope of finding good eats within walking distance.

Even in the most intensively altered landscapes, however, there are islands of wild: a wetland that cannot be developed, a poorly tended hedgerow, the edges of a public park. Steve Brill has made a career out of foraging in New York City. I knew if I looked I would find something. I cruised along the outskirts of the neighborhood until I saw a small stream running through a culvert under the road. I got out of the car. The stream's path could be traced as a meandering line of trees weaving between the houses. There were cattails there. I haven't ever gathered cattail pollen and really wanted to try. But these cattails had already dropped theirs. Across the road I found a handful of black raspberries, just enough to whet my appetite for more. On the other side of the brambles were some dinner plate sized flowerheads on a American elder, but I decided not to wade through the thorny canes in shorts. I got back in the car and kept driving.

Then I remembered the old orchard. Some years ago the town where our parents lived had acquired a derelict orchard with the help of a grant from the state of Connecticut. They had preserved the acreage as an open space in the face of a seemingly unstoppable wave of urban sprawl. I turned down the road and found a place to park by a weather-beaten placard that proclaimed the area closed at sunset. I looked at my watch and the sky. I had about 75 minutes.

The milkweed had gone to flower, but I'd read somewhere that the flowers were edible as well as the unopened buds. They weren't supposed to be very tasty, but we'd never tried them. I judiciously gathered one or two clusters from each plant and figured we'd give them a try and decide for ourselves. Poison ivy grew everywhere. I hopscotched my way out of an overgrown field and into a brushy hillside. Some bright red elderberries hung temptingly, another plant that is purportedly edible but that has not gotten rave reviews from any foragers we know. (Some even contend that the red elderberries are poisonous. Thayer cites evidence that native peoples of the northwest made them a regular part of their diet. All non-berry parts of the plant are assuredly toxic though.) What the hell! If they're terrible, I won't eat them. I filled another bag with the berries. Now I had two questionable edibles and about 45 minutes left before the area closed.

An old trail led through the brush. That's where I found them. Arching canes of black raspberries were just beginning their season. Something about those little black cups of seedy sweetness just brings out my greedy side. Every few feet along the trail was a new bush with another handful. All I had for storage was a plastic bag, but it would have to do. I'd finally hit the good stuff, and I wasn't leaving those berries without a fight.

Forty-five minutes later I sat on the hood of my car, watched the sun set, and enjoyed almost a quart of some of the finest fruit that can be had--wild or domestic. How, I wondered, did I let myself get too busy for this?

PS--Pictured above is a red elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and common milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) on the right. I ate all of the blackberries before I could take a picture. Told you it brought out my greedy side.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album) and Wild Strawberries

Early summer is here! Along with a few crazy hot days and a series of wild thunderstorms, Yub Yub and I have harvested our first garden peas from our garden and strawberries from our strawberry patch. Along with these come fun early summer edibles.

Last week, we went for a foraging ramble with out foraging friend, Arena. Like many foraging treks, it was a bit random. We set out with a general idea of where to go and what we'd like to find and ended up somewhere different picking something different.

Among our finds were some sumac shoots we nibbled on, a nettle patch, and some succulent new wild grape leaves to cook up. We wanted to collect burdock shoots, but we were a bit too early. We gathered a few thistle stalks, but they weren't enough to make a meal from. Our big find was a lovely patch of wild straweberries. We had thought it was a bit early for this, but as Thag hunkered down in a field covered in strawberry plants, he found them--tiny, red, and oh, so sweet. Baby Yub Yub was asleep on his back and as he divvied up his find amongst the three adults, Arena asked, "Aren't you going to save any for the baby?" Neither of us hesitated before saying no. In surprise, she said she would save hers for when the baby awoke. About five minutes later, wake up she did. And I popped a lovely sweet berry into her mouth. Within seconds, she ate all of mine, all of Thag's, and all of Arena's and was asking, "Mama, do you have any more?" Soon we were all hunting for berries just for her and Arena said, "I see why you didn't want to save any. If you did, you wouldn't have gotten any!" Indeed, last year I think I picked a total of ten wild strawberries, and I ate only one! Thag picked more, but he did so when we weren't around!

After the strawberry scramble, we found a large patch of lambs' quarters growing nearby. These are among my favorite edibles. Easy to use. Easy to find. Available all summer. We picked a batch and we use it just like spinach. However, it must be cleaned really, really well. It grows close to the ground and gets dirty easily. In addition, it has a natural coating of a gritty substance that is not terribly palatable. I washed it three times in water and gave it a thorough spin in the lettuce spinner. Then I simply stored it in the fridge, ready for use. This week we have added it to our pasta sauce and cooked it into an omelet. Tomorrow I plan to sautee it with onions before using it to fill calzones.

Happy foraging!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Black Locust Flower Update

My favorite story of the week: the little boy in the picture is Yub Yub's "best friend." We have play dates every week and last week Thag came home with a bag full of locust blossoms which the kids loved and the little boy's mom was excited to try. This weekend, his family attended a high school graduation and his mom forgot to pack a snack. She looked up and saw locust blossoms in full bloom. "Voila!" she said, "Instant snack!"

We have been feasting on black locust flowers all week. The two biggest hits have been adding locust flowers to fruit salad and adding them to an alfredo sauce. Their sweetness really comes through in the fruit salad. The rather bland nature of alfredo allows the locust blossoms to shine as the dominant flavor. To make, simply follow any alfredo sauce recipe. Add a lot of locust flowers--until the sauce is thick with them--remove from heat. Allow to sit and let flavors mingle. And enjoy. Enhanced (as is everything) by parmesan cheese!

We also made a locust flower and corn pancake which was not such a big hit. They tasted fine, but despite adding more locust flower than corn, we really couldn't taste them. They looked great though!

It has been really fun watching the locust flowers change over the last week. We found those with green calyxes sweetest. As the calyx turned to tan, they lost some sweetness though they still tasted okay--however, after their superior predecessors, they were not so appetizing. But you can tell they are past now. Although the trees are still thick with flowers, the smell no longer permeates the air and the ground beneath the trees is covered with a layer of locus flower snow.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wintergreen Berries (Gaultheria procumbens) and Muffin Extravaganza

Wintergreen was one of my first wild edibles. Unlike Thag I did not grow up in a family of hikers. My family's idea of a great day outdoors involves swimming pools, lemonade and steaks on the grill, or, when they feel really crazy, amusement parks. So, when we began dating as teenagers, Thag was my introduction to things like hiking, camping, and mountain top vistas. As we hiked through the woods, I could identify some trees due to a seventh grade botany project, but that was about it. On one of these hikes (which sometimes I loved and othertimes I dreaded, being unaccustomed to bugs, sore thigh muscles, and sweating), he introduced me to wintergreen. Easy to identify with the occasional surprise of a berry hidden beneath its thick green leaves, this became one of my favorites.

Yub Yub knows many plants, and today she was introduced to wintergreen. She and Thag hiked up a local mountain and she delighted in finding these sweet little berries. She loves finding things she can eat outside. Often, if she can pick something herself, she will eat it even though she won't eat the same food when it comes from our fridge. This was true with wintergreen berries. She spit them out when they sat in a bowl on our table, but she ate each and every one she found today. She even commented on this. "Papa, I like some wintergreen berries but not some wintergreen berries."

Up until now, this berry has been relegated to trailside nibbles or salad additions, but this year, Thag collected a lot. In fact, we froze them because we weren't sure what to do with them all. So the other day, when I found them sitting inside the freezer I decided to add them to our favorite corn muffin recipe.

This turned out wonderfully. Sadly I didn't measure the number of berries I added. But if you follow this recipe, I suggest not putting too many berries in. Their flavor really extended to the whole muffin. I fear that if one put too many berries in, they would begin to taste like toothpaste. These, however, were delicious, lightly wintergreeny and wonderful with tea.

Above, you will see a picture of wintergreen corn muffins at right, plain corn muffins behind, and locust flower corn muffins front left. The black locust muffins were good, but unlike the wintergreen muffins, I added too few locust flowers--I should have stuffed them full.

Wintergreen (or Black Locust Flower) Corn Muffins:

2 cups white flour

2 cups corn meal

2 tsp salt

8 tsp baking powder

1 cup maple syrup, brown sugar, or white sugar

2 cups milk

2 eggs

1/2 cup melted butter or canola oil

wintergreen berries and/or black locust blossoms--read post for more info

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease or paper muffin tins.

Sift dry ingredients together. Add milk and eggs (and maple syrup if using instead of sugar. Beat until blended. Add butter. Mix until just blended. Add berries and/or black locust blossoms. Fill tins. Makes 18 to 24 muffins depending on how full you fill them. They freeze well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The List: 28 and counting

So this is what we've been up to of late.

28: Black locust alfredo--5

27: Black locust and blueberry salad with red clover vinegarette--4

26: Sheep sorrel and white bean pasta---5

25: Nettle pesto--4

24: Dandelion muffins--4

23: Wild Leek pesto risotto--4

22: Sheep sorrel soup--5

21: Elderberry jam tart--3

20: Fiddlehead and nettle soup with tortellini--4

19: Knotweed strawberry cobbler--5

18: Fiddlehead and pork lo mein--4

17: Baked brie topped with dandelion marmelade and toasted black walnuts--5

16: Fiddlehead pasta in a creamy cheese sauce--3

15: Orpine, mayflower, trailing arbutus, and wintergreen berry salad--3

14: Wild leek and fiddlehead beef stir fry--5

13: Caramelized wild leeks over trout--5

12: Wild leek pesto pasta--2

11: Garlic mustard stalks in breadcrumbs--1

10: Wild leek quiche--5

9: Wild leeks with cauliflower--4

8: Marsh marigold sautee on toast--3

7: Caramelized wild leek pasta--5

6: Wild leek soup, French onion style--3

5: Parsnip and potato hash browns--4

4: Scrambled eggs with wild leeks--4

3: Day lily salad--3

2: Maple honey granola--5

1: Battered fried perch sandwich--4

Anyone know how to cut and paste into blogger--that would make this much easier!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Locusts are Here (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Oh sweet joy! Black locust flowers--another reason for living. We so look forward to this plague of locusts.

Yesterday, as we drove home from a swimming and ice cream excursion, we saw them--lovely white clusters hanging from these magestic and stately trees. Last year, we nearly missed them altogether. A late frost prevented all the locusts in our area from blooming. We hoped this year would not be the same.

Locust flowers are among our top ten favorite wild edibles. They are impressively fragrant and their frangrance runs through to their flavor. They only bloom for a week right around June 1. As soon as you notice their lovely petals littering the ground, they are no longer delicious. So you have to find them early--just after they bloom. Their brevity makes them all the more precious--so we expect to gorge this week on snowy white plumes.

Yub Yub loves them! This afternoon she and her good friend ate them like grapes off their clusters. "Mama, I need more of those tasty flowers!"

I put them into a salad of blueberries and spring greens and covered them with a light vinegarette made with the red clover vinegar I made last June. Yum. I can't wait for breakfast.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stinging Nettles that Don't Sting

Hot, steamy, overcast, and buggy--southern Vermont this week--other than the bugs, this weather is a welcome change from the long extended cold of the last several months. Yub Yub and I continue to collect sorrel, nettles, dandelion, and violets from our yard. Thag and I continue to lust for summer when we anticipate more time for foraging.

We seem to grow stinging nettles that don't sting! At first, I thought they were just low sting, but this week, I found a lovely new patch outside our house. Another patch of what seemed to be nettles grew in front of the ones I was certain were nettles. I have never been the plant ID person in our family. I tried. I found a few subtle differences, and I was fairly convinced that the "nettles" in front of the real nettles were not actually nettles. So, I touched them. No sting. I touched the real nettles. No sting. So much for a control.

When Thag got home from work, I asked for his assitance. I was right--the first plants were, the second plants weren't. I collected some of the real things to prepare a quiche. I really wanted to test their sting. I washed, snipped, and cut them with my bare hands. After about five full minutes of working with them, I had a slight tingle on the side of my left ring finger. Nothing else. I wasn't brave enough to try and eat them raw, but I wonder...

My father-in-law tells a story about his sister encountering stinging nettles and being swollen and in pain for a week. I know the degree of sting varies among location, but the lack of sting in our plants is kind of unbelieveable. But I am not complaining!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sheep Sorrel--Rumex acetosella

We love sheep sorrel--sweet and sour! But (like so many greens), we wonder why, in our reading, its culinary capacities are so understated. We read that it is an herb, or that it is a nice trail side nibble, or, occasionally that one can cook it up in a little butter as a side dish. Well, I don't know about you, but we've never been a family to eat a pile of mushy cooked greens on their own. Spinach and chard go in things--not along side them.

And, even large amounts of greens cook down to a very small quantity. You could pick sheep sorrel all day and only have enough for two servings of a side dish. But, its flavor is so intense and wonderful, it can be the main flavor of a meal.

So, after our fantastic success with sheep sorrel soup, I decided I needed to create my own recipes. Today, Yub Yub and I picked sorrel under a sky pregnant with thunder clouds and then came inside to cook up a feast as the storm broke outside.

Sheep Sorrel and White Bean Pasta--5!

about 4 cups sheep sorrel, washed and spun dry

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 onion, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 can (15 oz) cannellini beans, rinsed

12 ounces pasta (3/4 box)--we used rotini


Cook pasta. Reserve 1 ladleful pasta water.

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add onion--cook until translucent. Add garlic--cook one minute. Add sheep sorrel. Sprinkle with salt. Cook until sheep sorrel loses its lovely bright green color and turns an ugly brownish green--about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add beans. Add pasta water. Add pasta. Serve with parmesan. Delightful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Yard Foraging: Violets, Dandelions, Sheep Sorrel, and Nettles

One of the tired themes on our blog is our busyness. Rather than go into our usual complaint list, I will just say (again) that we are too busy and it has been affecting our foraging lives.

However...our inability to get out and forage in the woods at large has made us much more aware of the plenty on our own land. And it has also made us look more closely at the plants that grow here too. The little one and I collected dandelions for this year's batch of dandelion marmelade, and I found myself seeing the nuances of the dandelion. Who looks closely at dandelions? But they have so many stages. When they first bloom, their petals are tight knit in the center--clustered and easy to remove in one bunch. At their peak, the flowers are in lovely, uniform circles. As they age (though still all yellow) their centers become fuzzy and soft and the outer petals curve downwards. And the whole flower closes at night--who knew?

We have a lot of nettles on our property. Along the edge of the woods to the north, we have noticed our nettles have tons of tiny holes, making the leaves almost lacy with insect foraging. These nettles (as you would think) don't sting very much. Thag and I pick them without gloves. And the other day, as Yub Yub tried to help me forage, she walked right through a patch without any reaction at all. But, on the other side of our house, grows a smaller patch of nettles, with no insect bites that are much pricklier to the skin. How cool to know two patches so well--and see differences living so close together.

Despite the crazyness, I have managed to make two batches of violet jelly, two batches of dandelion marmelade, and make sheep sorrel soup for company who raved about it. So we continue on, but forgive us if our recipes and posts don't feature a large variety of edibles.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hunting and Gathering: Is it still possible?

My ancestors were professional foragers. So were yours. Before 10,000 years ago all of our ancestors were. There is no doubt that hunting and gathering food has been a viable profession for humans. But is it still? In 21st century New England can a family reasonably (and legally) subsist on wild foods gathered by their own hands?

I know of some wilderness survival teachers who have made dubious claims to have done this. Their stories are vague about the details. I don't believe many of their tales. I read the blog of a guy in the British Isles who attempted to live a full year on wild foods. He had to quit after a few months because he found that foraging was a full time job and that it took a paying job to earn enough money to live in his apartment (or house). He could not do both.

Samuel Thayer outlines a month of living on wild foods in his book Nature's Garden. It is the most thorough description of how someone might become a professional forager that I have seen. Yet it was only a month, and Sam used a lot of stored foods from his well-stocked larder of gathered foods. I don't mean to diminish the accomplishment, but what I want is to someday be able to live with the land the way my ancestors did ages ago before glass canning jars and pressure cookers.

It would be far more difficult to live as a forager in my time and place than it would have been even only 300 years ago. I've had people tell me my whole life that, "You can't go back." The reason they usually give is the staggering population increase and corresponding decrease in wild places in which to forage. But I am convinced that this problem can be overcome. I'm not really competing with anybody for wild foods (as long as oil is cheap). People just aren't interested enough. And wilderness areas while important, are not the best places to forage anyway. My best foraging is in the pastoral patchwork of farmland and woodland that comprises much of rural America. As I see it the real impediments to modern foraging as a way of life are not about population or loss of the wilds at all. Instead I think there are five things that stand in the way are things that most people never think about.

  1. The foods are gone. Chestnuts are gone. Wild rice is gone from much of its former range. The fish runs of shad are gone (or so diminished as to be practically gone). Anadromous fish, in general, are no longer abundant enough to be a staple. Gamebirds like the passenger pigeon are gone. We have certainly gained some new edible plants from Europe. In fact, much of what we experiment with on the foraging family are invasive plants that the professional foragers wouldn't have had. However, most of them are greens and herbs. They are nutritious, but low in calories. Compared to the calorie rich food sources that we have lost, these shoots, leaves, and buds hardly make up for the food sources we have lost.

  2. Access to the foods is reduced. It is a myth that native people would have had unfettered foraging access. Families, clans, and nations laid claim to land, claims that they defended against trespassers. At contact times, the native people of southern Vermont lived as semi-nomadic forager-gardeners. Family units had hunting territories of close to a five mile radius. Taboos restricted which places could be hunted at which time. Some resources, like the best fishing spots on the big rivers, were shared among larger groups. Also shared among larger groups were the best farmlands where they would grow corn. Access to land and food was limited for professional hunters as it is today. But even so, the modern day forager is restricted to significantly fewer places. Today, commonly held lands are much smaller, much farther apart, and much more restricted. Hunting seasons, bag limits, and gathering laws are our society's way of safeguarding these resources for the future. But do these restriction make professional hunting and gathering a legal impossibility?

  3. Distribution of the foods has changed. A lot of people seem to imagine the landscape of our ancestors was similar to the forests of today. This is not really so. Today's forests are different. They are the product of human disturbance of the landscape. The forests of 500 years ago, so far as can be told, were dominated by different trees, had different ecologies, and featured an abundance of different creatures. The forests of centuries past had a greater variety of species and a greater mix of trees of all different ages. There were some unique habitats that no longer exist like the New England prarie. (I'm not making this up. Check out Tom Wessels's Reading the Forested Landscape.)

  4. Traditions of food have been lost. We learn most quickly from a mixture of good teachers and lots of practice. Today's forager had few of both. My ambition to be a professional hunter-gatherer or at least a hunter-gatherer of professional level skill is stymied because of a dearth of role-models. There are folks, like us, who enjoy using wild foods to make our civilized foods more interesting. But our foods are still civilized. There is so much knowledge that is needed to live off the land. A lot of the pieces of this knowlege are readily out there. But I have not yet seen an example of anyone living with all of those peices put together in a single unified whole. The responsibilities of life in our society leave most of us with little time to make foraging anything but a hobby. The professionals of ages past would have learned from master foragers who were part of millenium-long traditions. They would have devoted many hours to the mastery of those skills. Most modern foragers are starting their traditions more-or-less from scratch.

  5. Foraging is no longer a collaborative process. What made foraging work for humans was the tribe. Foraging with a small group of compatriots in a kind of foraging co-operative was the most efficient and most productive approach to meeting foraging needs. Ooga and I have thought of this often. Two people are more than twice as productive as one. Three or four people can cover more ground and increase the odds of bringing in high yield but less reliable foods. The tribe was a kind of insurance policy. If you spent all day hunting and came home empty-handed, someone else had probably had success fishing. This, I think, is the most critical missing piece.

Whew! It's easy to get discouraged in the face of this daunting list. But I have great hope that I will someday realize my dream of being professional forager. Despite all these strikes against the would-be modern forager, there are many foraging advantages that we have today that our ancestors did not have. Stay tuned for a future post on things that our foraging ancestors would envy.

I have no answer to the question that began this post. I really don't know if hunting and gathering is a viable occupation in 21st century New England. I deeply hope that it is, and I dream of the day when someone proves that it is so--not just as some survivalists tall tale, but as a real and replicable model of the modern foraging life.

Is that dream possible?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Garden foraging: Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Spring has arrived here in Vermont, and it, as always, is glorious. The little one and I have watched the maple leaves unfold each day as I push her swing under its branches.

We have read about people finding obscene amounts of tasty edible weeds growing in their gardens, but we generally just have plantain (which we really dislike).

This year, however, as Yub Yub and I turned over the garden, we found a lovely batch of sheep sorrel growing among our strawberries. She and I collected them (though I know it looks like we are collecting violets!) and made a simple and delicious soup which all three of us devoured.

Her foraging skills have blossomed over the year. At two and a half, she can identify many plants and is well aware that we can eat some. Today, she stopped by some small ferns unfurling and said, "Mama, we can pick these? They are fiddleheads?" But she never picks or eats without asking. I am so happy with her development as a forager. As a teacher, I know children learn what they are exposed to. Put them in a room full of letters and books and people talking about letters and books and they will learn to read. But it is so fun to see my own child learning (so young!) to identify bird calls and raspberry plants ("Those have prickers, but not on the leaves.") and animal signs. Every day when Thag comes home she has a nature question for him. Yesterday she asked, "Papa, turkeys make nests in trees or on the ground?" Today she rushed to show him the fox scat we had found by the shed. I am so excited that foraging and eating wild foods will be so natural to her--it wasn't one of my goals when I started this project, but her wild food skills are, by far, the best thing that have come out of our work as the foraging family.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Treat: Baked Brie with Dandelion Marmelade and toasted Black Walnuts

I recently ran across a recipe for baked brie in one of my mother's magazines that I decided to try with some of our wild foods in place of other ingredients. Since brie is expensive, we tried it out on a mini wheel first and were blown away.

So, for Mother's Day, I made a big one for my mother (and all the other family members gathered at her house). It was easy and delicious. I took a bowlful of the dandelion marmelade I made last spring and mixed it with a small amount of honey to make it easily spreadable. I covered the brie with a thick layer of marmelade. Then I covered the top with toasted black walnuts. I baked the brie for 25 minutes until it was nice and melty and served it with toasted slices of French baguette. So yummy! We'll add a picture soon!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Count: 17 Meals and Counting

Here is a list of the meals we've eaten thus far and our analysis of them. The rating scale is as follows:

1: inedible
2: we finished it, but we wouldn't make it again

3: average

4: yummy; we'd be disappointed if we didn't have it again
5: superb; a meal to introduce others to wild edibles

Names of all wild foods we collected are in all caps.

Meals of 2011:

1. Battered, fried PERCH sandwich--4
2. MAPLE honey granola--5
3. DAY LILY salad--3
4. Scrambled eggs with WILD LEEKS--4
5. PARSNIP and potato hash browns--4
6. WILD LEEK soup, French onion style--3
7. Caramelized WILD LEEK pasta--5
8. MARSH MARIGOLD sautee on toast--3
9. WILD LEEKS with cauliflower--4
10. WILD LEEK quiche--5
11. GARLIC MUSTARD stalks in breadcrumbs--1
12. WILD LEEK pesto pasta--2
13. Caramelized WILD LEEKS over trout--5
16. FIDDLEHEAD pasta in cheddar cream sauce--4

Friday, April 29, 2011

Ick! Garlic Mustard Stalks again.

Well, we tried again. We went to a healthy sized patch up here in Vermont. We took a variety of different sized stalks and boiled them until tender. Bitter! And perhaps we could handle the bitterness if it were not all in the aftertaste. Who wants to walk around with that horrid flavor in their mouths! It is conclusive; we just don't like them. But, everyone has a few foods that they just don't like. Garlic mustard is one of those for us.

This is a picture of the garlic mustard in our compost bucket.

Wild Edible Breakthrough

Holy Edibles, Batman! There are suddenly a LOT of things to eat outside. For the past week, we have been eating meals infused with something wild at least twice a day (in large part due to a wild leek quiche we've been having for breakfast).

And it seems we have entered a new phase in our foraging lives--one we have aspired to. Wild vegetables are starting to replace the supermarket and farm stand vegetables that have always been featured in our diets. Last week, in the grocery store, I didn't buy any vegetables because I knew I already had wild edibles waiting to be eaten in the fridge and that new edibles were popping up all over the yard.

This is very exciting for our family. Spring was when we devoted the largest part of our foraging efforts last year, and so we are best versed in the spring plant foods. As the warm season progresses, it will be interesting to see if our new trend continues (as we hope it does). But for now, here's to cheaper grocery bills, more time outside, new culinary creations, and better nutrition!

Wild Leek and Fiddle Head stir fry with organic free range beef--super yummy recipe

Last's night's dinner was a winner! Here's the recipe; it is my own.

Large bunch wild leeks, bulbs and leaves, chopped
Large bunch fiddle heads washed, brown sheathes rubbed off
3/4 to 1 pound stew meat, cut into bite sized chunks
3 TBSP soy sauce or tamari
1 1/2 TBSP corn starch
1 tsp honey
1TBSP red wine or sherry
3/4 tsp black pepper
olive oil

Mix soy sauce, honey, wine, and pepper in a bowl. Wisk in corn starch. Add beef. Let sit.

Add a few tablespoons oil to large frying pan. Add leaks. Cook two minutes. Add fiddle heads. Cook two minutes. Add beef. Cook until beef is done. Serve over rice. Yum!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)--Still not convinced

It is so satisifying to eat invasive plants. We feel like we are doing our (albeit miniscule) part in cutting down the population and getting culinary and nutrition benefits as well. So garlic mustard keeps calling to us; it grows everywhere, smells good, and looks delicious.

But the taste, well...

Last year we tried the leaves in a stir fry and had to pick them out they were so unpleasantly bitter. This year we have done our research and have read that the early leaf stalks of the second year plants before the flowers have arrived should be much, much less bitter--tasty even.

So on our Easter trip to Connecticut (the garlic mustard here isn't even three inches tall) we gathered a bunch. We dutifully stripped them of their leaves, washed them, boiled them for five minutes (until they were tender), and tossed them with toasted buttered breadcrumbs. This should make any vegetable taste good. It was unpalatalbe. Neither of us could eat more than two bites.

So what are we doing wrong? These weren't just slightly bitter; they were horrible--like fully grown dandelion leaves.

There are several possibilities. Garlic mustard just tastes bad. (We are suspicious of this because we've read people we respect who think the opposite.) We prepared them incorrectly. (Again, we followed others' advice.) We got a bad patch. (Possible--we all know there are certain blueberry bushes that produce sweeter berries than others.) Any ideas? Advice? Experience?

I'm ready to write the whole plant off. Thag says we should try again.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Long, cold winter and long, cold spring

This past week, Thag has been on vacation, and we have made the most of our time together, but it has been a cold, wet week. We've been trying to forage, but we are limited in our gathering. We have gathered lots of leeks and the day lilies and orpine are up, but there are no signs of fiddle heads and even the knotweed is too small to gather. This morning an inch of snow accumulated at our house before we left to drive down to Connecticut for Easter.

Driving south was a bit painful. What a diffenence 100 miles can make! Maple, cherry, and willow trees in blossom--leaves sprouting on some trees! All the daffodils in full bloom! We know it will come, but spring has taken a long time coming this year.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wild Leeks with Cauliflower (Allium tricoccum)

Oh, we are in leek heaven here. So far we have made four meals with leeks--and today we will go out and gather more.

Leeks excel in a meal where they are the flavor that stands out. They do best with mildly flavored ingredients that don't mask the sweet and low onion flavor of the leeks. Hence why people often pair them with eggs.

So last night I mixed them with cauliflower--a decent, but not very exciting vegetable--into a side dish that caused us both to go for seconds.

To prepare, saute a large bunch of chopped leeks in a tablespoon or two of butter. Steam or boil a head of chopped cauliflower. Drain cauliflower and add to leek saute. Salt and cook until cauliflower is lightly browned. Yum, yum, yum!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Marsh Marigold or Cowslip (Caltha palustris)--Surprisingly Mild

Samuel Thayer, our most esteemed authority on wild plant foods, has this to say about the marsh marigold. "The problem with marsh marigold greens . . . is that they inherently taste bad. . . Only by adding seasoning, cream, gravy, or other embellishments does cowslip become fit to serve to dinner guests."

I hate to disagree with Mr. Thayer, but we don't share his dismal view of this green. Ooga and I both prefer very mild flavors. We buy mild salsa that is more sweet than hot. We avoid curries and most Indian food. We really like crackers. When we read Thayer's writings on the cowslip, we were trepidatious about this unknown plant. We needn't have worried. Perhaps the plants are less acrid here in New England than they are in the Midwest. Maybe Thayer was hoping for something more exciting. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that anything boiled in enough changes of water (we did three waters) is toned down. Whatever the reason, these greens tasted just fine to us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Allium tricoccum Ramps aka Wild Leeks aka Holy Yum My Tastebuds Just Melted

Just finished the last morsel of Ooga's fantastic rendition of Katie Letcher Lyle's "Onions with Pasta". What an understated name for such a superb recipe! The book from which it came, The Foraging Gourmet, just earned itself a place of honor in our foraging library.

A few words on ramps.

  1. Wild leeks are not leeks. Wild food guides tend to offer advice like, "Cook like asparagus," or, "Prepare like a potato." However, this often leads the novitiate forager to assume that these delicacies will taste like asparagus or potato. Anyone who has eaten an Asian 'pear' knows that names can be misleading. Most wild foods are unique. You will not find a flavor like autumn olive anywhere but in an autumn olive. That being said, there are patterns of flavor among related plants. Wild parsnips have the wonderful sweetness of their cousin the carrot. Leeks are a member of the genus Allium. Onions, garlic, and (yes) leeks are too. The pungecy that you know in the cultivated varieties is there in the wild leek.

  2. Wild leeks are magical. In our area they only grow in the richest of soils, protected in little valleys. Walking in these places when the forest floor is carpeted in lush green while the rest of the world still sleeps in an unopened bud is like walking in a church. It inspires reverence in the open heart. So many early spring greens are bitter. Wild leeks are delectable.

Last night we had a French-style wild leek soup with some of Ooga's homemade chicken stock. Hooray for this versatile spring plant.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Parsnip Part II--Still Not Dead (Pastinaca sativa)

Wild parsnips and domesticated potato fried in butter--what better side dish could you ask for? The parsnips were awesome. Here's our advice on parsnips.

  1. Be afraid. It's good to take your time keying out things in the carrot family and watching them for a long time before trying them. It's great way to not end up dead.

  2. Wash well. A good nail brush is a must for these twisty roots. We spent extra time scrubbing and were happy for it.

  3. Gather more. For a root vegetable these cooked down a lot.

Cute Things Baby Yub-Yub Says While Foraging

On walking with care--"See deez wild yeeks mama. I be so careful. I not step on them because I am their mother."

On the flavor of spring beauty blossoms--"Hmm, well . . . it's better than carrots."

On raking the forest floor with a stick--"Dis is my job. I am doing my job."

On digging for tubers--"Worm. I want a worm! Worms are so cute!"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Overcoming Carrot Anxiety--Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

I'm scared of carrots. I don't mean the carrots you find in the supermarket. I am afraid of experimenting with plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae depending on how old your field guide is). I fear them with good reason. A single taste of water hemlock (Cicuta sp.) can be fatal. "Some victims chew their tongues to shreds," notes Elpel in Botany in a Day (115). There's just something about this idea that unnerves me a bit. Despite the high stakes, carrot anxiety is a fear I need to overcome. The carrot family contains so much tasty goodness. The poisonous relatives are readily identifiable. You just have to be careful about identifying them. Hence the care with which I approached the parsnip.

One year ago, I had a hunch that the whorls of compound leaves that were sprouting up in our field were parnips. I did not gather them though. I wanted to see them through their whole life cycle. I watched them grow. I studied the second-year stalks. I keyed them out when the flowers appeared. Only then was I certain, but by then the roots had passed their prime. Finally, as the plants' returned their energy to their roots to overwinter (They are biennials.), they were ready to harvest.

When I dug up the tiny rosettes today, about a year after I first spotted their ancestors, the sweet, familiar smell of carrot wafted up from the earth. In a matter of moments and in only three turns of the shovel, I had almost half a pound of promising wild food.

Spring? Forage--Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)

It was a warm and lovely spring week; the baby and I spent nearly every day all day outside. But today, the first day of Thag's vacation, was cold--39 degrees--and windy. Still we bundled up in our winter things and headed out, determined to make the most of "spring."

We went up to our precious leek field, crossing the ice and snow still covering the shadier sections of trail. The logging that happened this fall significantly reduced the leek cover, but there are still more leeks there than anywhere else we have seen. The leeks were relatively small--about 5 to 6 inches, the trout lilies were only in leaf, and the spring beauties were no where to be seen. It was far from the day dreams I'd had deep within January. But still, they were there; spring must be coming...

When Yub Yub began to shiver, we headed back. The leek smell was wonderful and powerful--when the baby smelled them she said, "Deez smell like onions!"

At home, Thag cleaned the leeks and I prepared scrambled eggs with leeks--one of our all time favorites. So as we huddled under blankets on the couch, drinking our tea, we ate spring.

(Meal 3--rating 4)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Late Season for Wild Foods 2011

By this time last year we had long since finished the maple sugaring season, performed salamander crossing guard duty, taken the taps out of the birch trees (whose sugaring season is after the maple season), found coltsfoot poking up on the roadsides, dug leeks, harvested the tender young shoots of stinging nettle, and gathered fiddleheads from down by the river. The mustard greens (various species) were up. The japanese knotweed had reached the perfect height for gathering. Canada mayflower had unfurled and the day lilies had grown too tough to eat.

Now last year was particularly early, but this year is particularly late. We're still sugaring the maple trees! Everything remains curled up under the soil. I only had my first wild greens today. The fiddlehead down by the river are tough black brown knobs still buried in mud. Our garden remains covered in snow.

Day Lily Greens: A Great Addition to Spring Salads

I like mild greens. It's not that I can't tolerate the bitter ones. I'll eat salads featuring almost anything. I've even acquired a taste for thing like dandelion greens (a taste I probably cultivated because I just thought that it was cool and cave-man-like). But the mild greens, what John Kallas of the Wild Food Adventurer calls foundation greens, are my favorites, especially if they're a little sweet. Enter day lilies (Hemerocallis fulva).

Day lilies are mild and sweet, but what they really have going for them is a great texture. I had my first of the season in a salad today:

half and half day lily and cultivated greens

grape tomatoes


sliced chicken breast


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Maple Honey Granola

It has been a great (and long) maple sugaring season. We are still going strong a full week into April. We're usually all packed up by now, but our taps are still drip, drip, dripping. After Thag emptied all the buckets tonight, Baby Yub Yub kept startling at the plinking sounds at the bottom of the now empty buckets.

This is our fifth boil, and we still have more to go. Yay for the sweet stuff! You never know what kind of year it will be.

So time for Meal Number 1:

Maple Honey Granaola:

8 cups rolled oats

1 cup canola oil

3/4 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup honey

1 cup walnuts

1 cup slivered almonds


Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Grease two large cookie sheets (the ones with sides) or use silicone non stick mats.

Mix oil, honey, and maple syrup until well blended. Pour oats and walnuts in a large bowl. Sprinkle with a little salt and stir. Pour liquids over oats and walnuts. Bake about 20 minutes. Stir. Bake another 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Watch this carefully. Cooking times vary. Feel free to lower the temperature if you need to. I have burned an entire batch, and it is an expensive mistake to make!

Remove from oven. Add almonds. Stir. Let cool and harden. Break into small pieces and store in an air tight container.

Feel free to add any dried fruit, seeds, or nuts. We like ours nutty and are using some of the black walnuts we harvested this fall.