Friday, March 30, 2012

Early Spring Edible Plants~What's Available Today?

The season is upon us!  If you live in the Northeast, go gather now!  Don't wait for the usual timetable.  Here's a list of what we've seen that's green and ready for harvest.  If you're new to foraging, these would make a great set of first plants to get to know this year.  Click the links below to find some of our favorite previous posts. 
  1. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)--A few days ago I enjoyed my first BNT (bacon, nettles, and tomato sandwich) of  the season.  My favorite wild green.  They can be gathered bare-handed without stings.  I'll share my method in an upcoming post. 
  2. Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)--We've missed this one two years running now.  But not this year.  If you have experience with this green, tell us what you do with it. 
  3. Trout lily (Erythronium spp.)--Many of these are even past the stage I like them for greens.  (The bulbs are better anyway.)   
The earlier the better with most of these.  They can be gathered as soon as the ground has thawed.  Get them now before they bolt. 
  1. Parsnip  (Pastina sativa)--Try frying with potatoes
  2. Evening Primrose  (Oenothera biennis)
  3. Burdock  (Arctium spp.)--Always better than I expect it to be considering that the leaves are so bitter you could use then as Novocaine.  (That last bit was hyperbole--but, man, they are bitter.)
  4. Cattail  (Typha latifolia)--Technically, this is not a root but a rhizome.  The water up our way is still chilly, but we loved our cattail-flour latkes
  5. Wild leek (Allium tricoccum)--Already unfurled, this weekend will be prime time for finding colonies of ramps.  Click here for a recipe.  (wild leeks, rice, and hazelnuts--yum)  . . . and more
Marsh marigold aka cowslip (Caltha palustris) is probably up already, but we haven't check our spots. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sweet Birch Iced Tea

Some folks have asked about this tea since our last post.  Here's how we make it. 
  1. Materials:  We use loppers, half-gallon jars with tops (Mason jars), and a jelly bag. 
  2. Gather:  We prefer sweet birch, also known as black birch, (Betula lenta) to yellow birch (Betula lutea), but both make a wintergreen tea.  The other birches are not worth gathering in our opinion.  I cut a 2-3 foot branch with loppers. 
  3. Cut:  We use the loppers to cut the branch and all of its twigs into 7 inch lengths so that they fit easily into our jar.  Sometimes we give Yub-yub a butterknife and have her scrape at the bark of the larger twigs to reveal the green living tissue beneath it.  This, however, is mostly a babysitting tactic and is not necessary unless your three-year-old insists on being part of the process.  
  4.  Steep:  The molecule that gives birch tea its most important flavor is volatile.  Practically speaking this means that you don't want it to get too hot.  If it does, you're tea does not taste as good.  We usually pour not-quite-boiled water over the twigs or let the water boil first and then let it cool a bit.  Then, we put the cover on the jar.  This may be an old wives' tale, but I think it helps improve the flavor.  The key with birch teas is to let them steep for a long time.  We steep for about 45 minutes.  Arthur Haines (one of New England's premeire botanists and author of Ancestral Plants) recommends even longer, 2-3 hours.  We've recently taken to putting our tea in the fridge afterward.  It's very refreshing on a hot day. 
  5. Filter:  If you don't mind solids in your tea, it tastes fine straight up.  We, however, screw a jelly-bag over the jar to catch all the bits. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cooking Eggs in a Paper Bag

I saw this video on YouTube that suggested one could cook eggs and bacon in a paper bag and decided to try it.  In my science classes, I have sometimes boiled water in a paper cup.  Water's boiling point is near 100 degrees Celsius, and it will not rise above that temperature until it has become a gas.  The paper cup continually conducts its thermal energy into the water, so it won't get above 100 degrees Celsius until the water has boiled away.  The paper cup won't burn unless it reaches about 233 degress Celsius.  (In Fahrenheit this is 451 degrees, hence the name of Ray Bradbury's classic story about bookburning.)  The idea behind paper bag cooking is similar.  As long as the egg is cooking in the paper bag, the bag won't burn.  I loved the idea of cooking in paper and tried it over a small cookfire in our yard.
Unfortunately, the bag kept burning.  When I boil water in a paper cup, I fill the cup nearly to the brim.  Even then, the lip of the cup may get singed.  In this case, much of the bag is not in direct contact with the egg. I found it difficult to keep the parts of the bag that were above the egg from catching fire--even when I cooked on some nearly flameless charcoal.  I was similarly unimpressed with the culinary results of the experiment.  In the YouTube video, the woman's bacon and eggs did not look particularly well-done.  Neither did mine.  I, for one, do not like my eggs on the runny side.  My paper bags didn't seems robust enough either.  They leaked a bit before the egg really began to cook. 
I tried this three different times:  once with bacon and two eggs, once with three eggs, and once with one.  Each time, I got a little better with practice.  I would love to show off this novel cooking method to friends, but the novelty doesn't provide quite enough motivation to invest any more time (or good eggs).  If anyone out there tries or has tried this, let us know how it goes.  If you do, here's what I've learned so far. 
  1. Keep the bag out of the flames.  Cook over a bed of high temperature coals. 
  2. Get sturdy paper bags. 
  3. Start with one egg.  A single egg cook much more thoroughly. 
Good luck!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Foraging Family Workshop--Earth Day,April 22, 2012

Thag will teach a workshop on foraging for spring edibles at the Earth Day celebration hosted at the Putney School on April 22, 2012. The event is free and open to the public, and the workshop will run from 1:30-2:15. With music, speakers, and kids' activities, it looks like a great day. Tom Wessels, author of Reading the Forest Landscape and Forest Forensics (and one of Thag's graduate professors), is the keynote. He is a thoughtful ecologist and eloquent speaker. I highly recommend going to hear his address. And while you're there, stop by our workshop to learn about foraging in early spring. Here's a description of what we'll be doing.

Spring Foraging

Sure, wild foods are healthy, organic, and ecologically sensitive items to add to your diet. And yes, they are free for the taking at a park or roadside near you. (Did we mention that they taste good?) But the best part of foraging is that you can get your groceries on a relaxing walk through some wild places instead of . . . aisle 6. If you join us, you'll learn:

  • the top 10 wild edible plant for the early spring season

  • a few common wild edibles, how to identify them, and some ways to prepare them

  • three good excuses . . . er . . . reasons to get out foraging now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Maple Sugaring: Season is Over Before Spring Begins

The remarkably warm end to winter in northeastern North America has shortened the maple sugaring season. Although not a total wash, our yeild seemed pitiful in comparison to previous years. Last year, we processed about eight gallons of syrup. This year, we're probably just a bit over two gallons. (Now, that comparison may not be completely fair. Last year by many accounts was a remarkably generous year. But it's the only other year that we actually measured the quantity of syrup that we got.) Here's a quick tour of this year's operation.

Here is the steamy evaporator full of maple sap. This is the finishing pan from a big commercial operation that works just fine as an evaporator for our small time sugaring.

Here are Abe and Carl, the masterminds behind our maple sugar. The pan (which contains the boiling sap) rests on the arch (where the fire is built to heat it). Carl and Abe are tending the fire in the arch which they built from cinder blocks and rebar. The door is made from scrap metal that they salvaged and welded.

Here is Abe settling the blocks in the arch and filling the seams with sand and bits of fiberglass to keep the smoke out of the sugar house. Notice that here the pan has been lifted out of the way.

Here the buckets are being gathered the old-fashioned way--by hand. We carry the sap in five-gallon buckets to a central barrel.

Sap is stored in the barrel until we've gathered enough to boil. That usually means a full barrel. Handily enough our barrels have a 40 gallon capacity. This makes the math easy because one barrel full of sap will yeild about one gallon of syrup. The ice in the barrel contains no sugar, so we break it and throw it away. The freezing actually helps to concentrate the sap and saves us wood and time.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pine Pitch Glue

As Thag and Eva meandered through the woods near our house yesteday, they came upon a piliated woodpecker hole oozing pitch from a white pine. Thag remembered reading that one could make glue from pine pitch, so when they came in later that day, we looked it up.

In Earth Knack: Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century by Bart and Robin Blankenship, we found a lovely passage describing the seemingly simple process of turning pitch into glue. So out we went with an empty can, some popsicle sticks, and our camera. The tree did not yield as much pictch as we wanted, however, the Blankenships emphasize that small batches are actually best. So when we find the appropriate project, we plan to heat it and apply it. Apparently, it is both waterproof and stronger than cement!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nuts over wild hickory nuts--wild edible #3

Along our road stands a giant hickory tree. Every fall we collect nuts that have fallen on the road. These rest in a box in the basement beside the black walnuts.

Above: a dried whole hickory nut, a partially hulled nut, the inner nut ready to crack, and the nut meat. The dried nuts are easy to hull; we peel the four sections with our fingers. We crack the inner nut with a nut cracker (see Eva below), and extract the meat with wire cutters and a nut pick.

These are fantastic--sweet and soft.

Eva cracking nuts--notice she has no pants on--I took this picture yesterday--it was 66 degrees!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Forage?: Thoughts on a Foraging Philosophy

I've known some who forage because they believe the apocalypse is nigh. Surprisingly these foragers seldom seemed to be having much fun and the food they foraged was often horrible. They just didn't seem to be too excited about . . . um . . . food. And they stockpiled stuff in their basement. From one forager to another, we've got enough crap gathering dust in our basement, thank you very much. Akin to these foragers, we've known some anarchist activists who saw foraging as a political statement against the hegemony of capital-supported patriarchy. And, although I'd be as happy as anyone to see the demise of the 4G-super-ultra-smart-phone androids, I'm pretty attached to libraries . . . and dentistry . . . (I really like not having cavities.) . . . and don't get me started on the fabulousness of birth control.
On the other end of the spectrum, we've known gourmands who foraged for the most exotic ingredients. We've seen some dishes out there in cyberland that must have involved a professional food photographer. The thing is that these recipes often only involve a few wild ingredients, usually greens, and the rest of the ingredients we can't afford.

Some of my favorite people to hang out with are the primitive skills geeks who have replicated the entire contents of the Ice Man's backpack. I also love survivalists who know 32 ways to start a fire with nothing but their bared teeth. I've had serious cases of handmade moccasin and gourd water bottle envy.

I have belonged to all of these groups at different points in my life. End-timers, neo-primitive anarchists, foodies, and "practicing primitives"--I love them all. But that's not what the foraging family is about.

I really don't believe that the world will end anytime soon. If it did, I doubt I'd be one of the die-hards who made it through. Nor do I want to spend my life in the kitchen perfecting the perfect stinging nettle flan. What I want is live simply and freely outside. I want to eat honest fare that was ethically won from my fellow creatures. I want meals that are simple, tasty, and sustaining. And the truth is that I just thinks its nicer somehow to get my groceries on a walk through the woods than under the flourescent lighting and musak of the supermarket.

We've changed our tagline at Foraging Family to "Adventures in Food and Freedom" because we've recently clarified our foraging goals. Our vision is to be able to live freely outside--to be able to walk out of our door one day and not to have to go back inside unless we want to. To be able to spend as much time in God's green world as we can during this short life. That's what we mean by freedom. And I've realized that the BEST way to do that is not to eschew modern equipment, or concoct glamorous wild edible sauces. Instead, it will come from a practical eye for increasing the ratio of sustaining (high calorie) wild foods in our diet and of outdoor time in our busy lives. So this year, we hope that our wild food adventures will include more of the following:

  1. More outdoor cooking. We have to cook anyway. Why do it inside? What a great way to increase our time outdoors. Aesthetically, it's the perfect way to prepare wild food. Wouldn't it be cool to have a cooking show called "Thag and Ooga's Stone Age Kitchen"?

  2. More wandering. How do you find wild foods on the landscape? For me, wild food is an excuse for traipsing through the wilds.

  3. More family. Good stuff is often only good if you share it. Look for more of our family and friends this coming year.

  4. More escape routes. How does someone who works too much get out? That's our mission. I choose to accept it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shelling Black Walnuts

I've learned a number of things about removing black walnut nutmeats from their shells today.

  1. Wire cutters are awesome. I watched a YouTube video of someone processing black walnuts, and he used wire cutters to precisely fracture his walnuts after he split them with a vice. When I found another forager using the same method, I figured it would be worth the bother of finding a pair in our haphazardly piled tools in the basement. Was it ever? It took a minute to get the hang of how to hold the shell so that pieces didn't pop everywhere, but it sure beat digging out crumbs with the nutpick.

  2. Swing gently, Grasshopper. Too much food is lost and wasted if the nutmeats are crushed when you break them with the hammer or mallet. My new objective during the cracking stage will be to just split the nuts open. I'll do the rest of the work with other tools.

  3. Don't rush. We collected these walnuts in October of 2010. After a year and a half, they are still as sweet-smelling as ever. No sign of rancidity. This is convenient if black walnuts do actually only produce nuts in quantity every other year as I have been told. This makes sense. Most nut-bearing trees evolved a mast year cycle so that they don't loose too many nuts to squirrels and other woodland creatures like yours truly.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Late Winter "Foraging"--black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Today Eva and I went foraging--in our basement. A lot of our winter wild food work revolves around processing things we gathered in warmer seasons. We collected these walnuts a year and a half ago (see how small she is!) and dried and stored them in their shells. We have 3 boxes of them awaiting us, and we process them as we feel like it. They are incredibly fresh--no rancidity at all.

Since it was 60 degrees today (!), I figured it would be a great day to smash some walnuts. We have no specialized equipment to crack these infamously tough shelled nuts. We use an old tee-shirt, a mallet, and a block of wood. We wrap the nuts in the tee shirt so that the precious pieces don't scatter about the driveway when we smash them. We lay the tee shirt nut combination on a piece of wood and whack them with the mallet. It is preferable to get a single good whack as you are more likely to end up with several good chunks of nut meat. Too many whacks results in a nut meal flour which cannot be separated from the shell fragments. (I'm not terribly good with a hammar so I know this first hand).

Tonight as we sat around watching Between the Lions, the three of us separated the nut meats from their shells with a nut pick. This is really an essential tool--tooth picks break and butter knives don't fit in the tight crevices. We've tried a lot of common kitchen tools, but the nut pick does what it is designed to do.

A delightful discovery is that Eva loves black walnuts--we keep trying nuts with her, but she has not shown much enthusiasm, but tonight she couldn't get enough. Yay!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sweet Birch Tea (Betula lenta)

Our little one, who's real name is Eva, loves to make sweet birch tea (Betula lenta). It is a fantastic, real life project that keeps her busy when I am cooking, giving her a way to contribute to our meals.

As far as winter edibles go, this is one of our favorites. Warm, delicious, and so satisfying on a cold winter evening around the camp fire or over the reading of a good book.

Our woods have a plentiful supply of black birch trees (yellow birch also makes a similar brew), easy to correctly identify because of its clear wintergreen smell when its twigs are scratched. You can break up small twigs, fill a jar, cover with almost boiling water and wait until the tea reaches your desired flavor. Eva likes to take the twigs and shave them with a butter knife. She finds this activity deeply satisfying; she will shave twigs for upwards of 40 minutes!

So if you have little ones (or if you do not) introduce them to sweet birch tea--a wild food that is sure to please.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Warm Winter Adventures

This winter has been unusually warm for New England. To have an idea of just how warm it has been, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has declared it the 19th warmest January on the globe--in Vermont the daily temperature averaged 6 degrees warmer. Last winter we plowed our road every three days in January. This year we have plowed three times total (and one of those plowings was a freak October storm that dumped 14 inches!).

The lack of snow and 40+ degree days have allowed for longer adventures in the woods around our house. In January we tracked a bear! We've discovered a bald eagle living along a stretch of the Connecticut River. We watched the geese return to us in February. We have also taken to cooking dinner over out outdoor fire ring. A shelter is slowly being erected on our hill. And we have made a lot of sweet birch tea.

While Thag is at work, Yub Yub and I have taken to frequent long hikes in the woods. Her outdoor skills have grown immensely without having to take a break for bitter temperatures or snow so deep she couldn't walk in it. She can accurately identify and follow deer and squirrel tracks (often spotting them before me). She can also identify buckthorn (a common invasive) without any leaves--breaking off the stems and declaring, "I'm helping the other plants find space." Every day she seems to learn a new bird call or tree species.

We know this winter has been bittersweet for others, but our little family has been making the most of this mild weather and the opportunities it offers.

A New Focus for the Foraging Family

Foraging Family is back after a long hiatus. The promise of a new growing season is in the air. And we're excited to make the most of it. We've got a bunch of new ideas (and some old ones) for where we'd like to go this year.

What's New

  1. Regular Weekend Posting--We're committed to posting new content every weekend. Look for a new post every Friday or Saturday. We'll post more often if we can.

  2. New Yearly Theme--"One year. One family. One hundred wild food adventures." Our objective for this year is to expand beyond our study of a collector's list of wild edible plants, or list of recipes. We want to include more outdoor cooking skills (especially of wild foods), more outdoor living, and more traipsing through the woods--all of it focused on wild food as a means of living independently in the wild.

  3. New Tagline--To convey our new emphasis on wild food as a key component of living wildly, independently, and self-sufficiently, we've adopted a new tagline--"Adventures in Food and Freedom". (More on this in a future post.)

What's Staying the Same

  1. Foraging--Foraging for wild foods is still at the heart of our blog, especially wild plants.

  2. Family--We're still committed to sharing our individual family's adventures, especially as our daughter grows into a forager herself. We hope to share some of our thoughts, hopes, and fears of sharing our foraging passion with her.

  3. Fun--We want to be informative, but we also want to be entertaining. Our recipe: Mix equal parts field guide, cookbook, and adventure story. Stir vigorously. Enjoy right away and same some for later. Leftovers are always the best.