Spicebush : A Spice For All Seasons

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Spicebush leaves reach for the sky in a striking, characteristic fashion in spring.

Our native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a plant that greatly exceeds expectations. It passes by quite unnoticed along many a hiking trail or watershed. It’s precisely the kind of thing you don’t take notice of until you are looking for it. Immediately afterwards, you realize it is everywhere. At least, it’s everywhere if you live by me. If you live in the broader eastern half of the United States, then you are within its’ range, from Maine to northern Florida, west to Texas and Iowa. That doesn’t mean you’ll see it as often as I do–but you may see it often enough to consider collecting it for use as a food and seasoning.

If you can, if you do, you will find an ingredient that will constistantly surprise you with how intense its flavor is, and how pliable and useful that flavor is in the kitchen. This humble bush has a lot going for it. A lot more than at first might meet the eye, or indeed, tongue.

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Spicebush leaves just emerging when the flowers are still dropping from the tree. This is a good time to throw these little buds in the pan for stir-fries and sautés.

Spicebush is an understory plant, a deciduous shrub, and a native plant. It can be found in areas dominated by deciduous hardwoods–spicebush flowers in the early spring and sets fruit early, so it needs the canopy above to be relatively free of evergreen foliage. It tends to congregate along paths, trails and natural clearings, anywhere it can get a little extra light during the growing season. Its leaves are soft and fairly large, with a distinctive fragrance that echoes the flavors and aromas to be found in the other parts of the plant. It should be abundant, if you wish to collect flowers or fruit (“spicebush berries or spiceberries”). If not, sampling a handful of leaves or a few winter twigs won’t harm the plant much. Because it grows so profusely along hiking trails in my area, I collect it at state and national parks (HEAVEN FORFEND) where the park rangers already clearly maintain a trail. Essentially, I do their pruning for them, snapping back intruding twigs in winter and collecting fruit most likely to fall in an area where constant travel would impede their growth. Look for spicebush flowers in late winter/early spring, leaves by mid-spring, and green fruit by late spring. By late summer, sometimes even mid-summer if it is particularly hot, the fruit will turn red and mature, and the leaves will gradually begin to yellow, and will drop off in the fall.

Spicebush provides a year-round culinary source, since all of its aboveground material is useful, even down to the hardy winter twigs. The fresh growth of twig can be collected and used at any time of the year, but I mainly use it during the winter, when other ingredients are scarce and the plants energy is concentrated in the fresh growth. I also collect twigs when I harvest whole branches of the plant, which I generally do if I am planning on using every part–leaves, twigs and berries.

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Spicebush flowers light up the understory in late winter. This is a good time to source a community large enough from which to forage.

In early spring comes the flower of spicebush, the part I have used least for seasoning but the part of the plant that most people are familiar with. In locations with strong spicebush populations, the woods become a veritable sea of wispy yellow flowers, small and innocuous on close inspection but vibrant when they have so little competition from other leaves or flowers. My initial experimentation with spicebush flower has been very positive and made me excited for more–I infused flowers and twigs in both vinegar and Mirin, and found that these each had an intriguing flavor, not exactly the same as when other parts of the plant were used, but warmer and sweeter. I expect I will use the flowers with great gusto next season.

Spicebush provides not one, but two dried spices : one sharp and peppery in spring, one savory and spicy in the fall. Unusually, both of these can also be used fresh, as the basis for curry or spice pastes, or preserved whole a la capers.

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Very early green spicebush berries and mature leaf. At this size the berries are intensely peppery.

Green spicebush berries can be collected as soon as they emerge, and their flavor at first will be especially peppery and citrusy., and biting into one in the woods might make you think you found wild black pepper! I would almost rate this initial stage as a third dried spice, but the size of the berries when they have this intensity of flavor is quite small. As the size of the berries increases, the flavor begins slowly to broaden out. The prime time for collecting the green berries is when they are fully-sized but before the berries begin to turn red, usually up until early August. They can be used fresh to make curry or spice pastes, pickled or fermented a la capers, or dried. I usually dry them in my dehydrator on a fruit-roll up tray, but I have air-dried them successfully as well. Tradition states that spicebush should be stored in the refrigerator, as the berries are high in fats and may spoil, but I haven’t found this to be the case with the green fruits, which dry down to a much more shriveled-up size. In dry or especially hot seasons, you may find spicebush berries turning red in July, but this is a sign of stress in specific plants, rather than a general indicator of harvest time. Before the berries change color, the flavor begins to swing, from peppery and lemony to sweet and resiny, with a hint of the aromatic spice of cinnamon or clove. When the berries have deepened to a rich, bright red, it is time to begin collecting them again.

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Red spicebush berries during the peak of harvest season. The wrinkling is normal, tending to be exaggerated at times of stress to the plant, such as a hot and dry late summer.

Red spicebush berries are a sweeter spice, almost reminiscent of allspice, to which they are often compared. While allspice is quite fine, to me dried red spicebush has a more complex, daring and interesting flavor, with more sharp and resinous notes. The fresh red berries can be used as well, and I make curry pastes and spice pastes with those, combining with red chiles and other aromatic ingredients. The taste of the fresh red berries isn’t really more pungent than that of the green ones, but it is assertive in a way that is generally a bit more trying on the palate. Accordingly, I tend to use more sweet dried spices or other aromatic ingredients when making a paste with fresh red spicebush. The dried red berries can be used for both savory and sweet applications, although I think they shine more when added to ice creams and baked goods, and are certainly superior to the dried green berries.

Throughout most of the year the leaves can be used.The first tiny leave buds can be thrown into a sautee pan and cooked and eaten as is, lovely added to a cream or butter sauce for fish or pasta. Some people make a sun tea of the leaves but I have never had much truck with this approach. I feel like the flavor never quite gets strong enough to be a good tea, and the leaves will ferment very quickly. This of course, is to your advantage if you are making a wild soda, beer or mead, and fresh or dried spicebush teas are a great addition to those. They also work as infusables, in things such as vinegar or alcohol in which their slow coming-on flavor wont lead to a wild bubbly. In general, however, I prefer to use dried leaves. I haven’t found that spicebush leaves dry well without using a dehydrator or bags. Placing them on trays in an open environment will dry them, but the succulence and oils of the leaves never quite depart, resulting in a dried leaf thats will spoil if stored in jars. I prefer the twig tea to a straight tea made from any of the leaves, but that from machine-dried and stored leaves is best.

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In winter, the fresh, aromatic twigs of spicebush can be gathered at any time.

In winter, leaves and berries drop off, but the fresh twigs can still be used. You will be surprised when collecting them in fall and winter how strong and resinous they smell, as this hardy bush still holds plenty of energy in its aboveground parts. This can be dried but is best used fresh–I like to make a slow-cooker tea by piling the twigs in my slow-cooker and placing on high for the better part of the day. I will often let this tea sit overnight, and strain it in the morning. Spicebush twig tea is oily, and there will be a small amount of this resinous matter on the top of the tea when you strain it. I recommend using cheesecloth if this interferes with your desired final result, or coffee filters if you are particularly delicate. I drink this tea as is (its a bracing brew), add to kombucha for secondary ferments, make into a syrup, and cook foods in it, often combined with other wild teas. It is also full of wild yeasts (which aren’t removed by slow-cookers as the liquid never comes to a boil), and can be used to ferment pickles in, although I find it is better for this purpose to combine with another similarly-prepared wild tea, such as sassafras or pine.

I have endeavored here to present an overview of spicebush, rather than a comprehensive study, and hint at its many uses. I feel that I am only beginning to understand the many uses of this native wild spice. I hope use this article as a base, and compile a list of recipes which incorporate spicebush in some form here, starting with those I have already published :

Nearly Wild Curry Mix

Forest Vinegar

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Pizza & Field Garlic Bread with Paola!

In what I hope will be the first of many such collaborations, may I present a How to Cook a Weed guest blog from my friend Paola Energya! We hooked up on Instagram over our mutual love of walking, foraging, and that most fundamental of foodstuffs, PIZZA!  Check out her book, The Foraging Home Cook on Amazon. Over to you, Paola!

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Do you love pizza? Do you love garlic bread? I do! 

Hi, my name is Paola and I have been comparing food notes on Instagram with Mallory for a while. We both like making bread and pizza so we decided to do a little blog exchange.

A Bit of History

Pizza is a big obsession of mine (watch my video and you’ll understand why). If I could, I would have pizza every day, but I am currently limiting myself to once a week. I make my own pizza and I must say that it’s not as difficult as it sounds. You are basically letting the ingredients do all the work, I promise.

When I see my mother make pizza, it is a huge affair. The amount of ingredients she mixes in the dough is rather big, and the toppings could probably feed an army. That’s Italian mothers for you.

Simple Pizza Dough Recipe

Serves 4 people

Ingredients:

500 gr strong bread flour

300 ml water

1 teaspoon dry yeast (instant yeast)

1 teaspoon salt

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Method

Activate the yeast in a little water for about 5 minutes (mix yeast and room temperature water together).

In a large bowl, add the yeast, flour, water and salt. Mix well for 5 minutes with a wooden spoon or a spatula. The resulting dough should be elastic.

Cover the dough either with cellophane or a lid (my preferred method, because sometimes you run out of cling film just when you need it).

Keep the dough in a warm place and let it rise for at least 8 hours but preferably 24 hours. It will more than double in size.

My tip is to then keep the dough in the fridge for 1-2 hours before baking: it will make the pizza extra crispy (I discovered that by chance).

You can choose any toppings you prefer but remember that you should put as little tomato as possible (about 2 tablespoons of tomato passata or sauce) and bake the pizza with the tomato sauce at 200 degree Celsius for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, take the pizza out and add all the toppings, baking for a further 5-10 minutes.

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Enriched Field Garlic Bread

Serves 2 people as a starter

Ingredients:

150 gr strong bread flour

100 ml water

½ teaspoon dry yeast

1 egg

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small pinch of salt

For the garlic pesto:

1 bunch of field garlic

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pinch salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

 

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Method

Mix the yeast and water (room temperature) in a bowl. Let the yeast activate for 5 minutes then add the flour, egg, oil and salt.

Cover the bowl with a lid and leave overnight (or 8 hours).

Prepare the field garlic pesto by chopping the field garlic roughly with a knife, then blitzing it in a blender together with oil, salt and sesame seeds. Blend until smooth (2-3 minutes).

Add 1-2 tablespoons of the garlic pesto to the dough (according to your taste, this pesto is quite strong). Mix lightly with a spoon to obtain a marbling effect.

Preheat the oven at 200 degrees Celsius. Transfer the dough onto a tin (or silicone mould) and bake for 20-25 minutes.

About Paola Bassanese

Hi, I’m Paola, I’m a freelance writer and author with a passion for food. Find out more.

 

Boullion of the Woods

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BOTW before grinding.

If you’re a mushroom forager, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.) aren’t really the first fungi that spring to mind when thinking about drying the harvest. Indeed, the appearance of a slightly-too-far-gone specimen is something of a wild food cliché, sometimes accompanied by gags of the “no spring chicken” variety. Hilarious.

When they are fresh, it is their tenderness, as well as their flavor that encourages comparisons with poultry. Newly-emerged Laetiporus can be stir- or deep-fried to resemble chicken breast meat to a very credible degree. When they are still fresh but not quite as soft, I can still deep-fry them or use them in a slow-cooked dish with great results. They can also be used at this point, and perhaps a little further along, to make a great mushroom and herb powder that substitutes quite handily for powdered or cubed chicken bouillon.

First, the mushrooms should be dried in a dehydrator or by placing on wire racks in a place with a great deal of air movement and not much humidity. Once they are dried quite thoroughly they can be made into the BOTW or left in glass or plastic jars bags until ready to be ground. You will get the most optimal results by using the freshest mushrooms. If the fungus is really quite dry when you encounter it, it may already have lost too much of its flavor to be saved. If you prepare this, also try the test mentioned below and see if the flavor is adequate.

Combine in a food processor :

4 oz. dried chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus spp.)

2 tbs good-quality sea salt

1/4 cup dried wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) leaf

2 tbs dried sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) leaf

Pulse and then process until the product resembles semolina or corn meal.

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Ground BOTW.

To test the flavor, dissolve a small amount in a coffee mug full of hot water. If the flavor resembles chicken broth, you’re good to go.

As far as substitutions, you can use oregano in lieu of wild bergamot, and perhaps thyme or bay leaf in half the quantity listed to substitute for sweetfern. The flavor won’t be exactly the same, but should still serve amiably.  You may wish to add more salt to more closely approximate dried chicken bouillon (which is extremely salty), but I usually find it more helpful to add salt to the dish directly, leaving this powder with just enough salt content to use as a broth base without making it too salty to add to dishes with abandon.

Texture of the ground powder is a consideration. I like to leave it a bit coarse, even allowing for the occasional lentil-sized nugget of Laetiporus to go unground. These larger bits can always be strained out of a broth later if I am looking for consommé-like refinement. More often I am using BOTW to add to meatballs or stews, or as a base for a ramen bowl. In these cases, small chunks of mushroom are a bonus rather than a hindrance. If you prefer it finer, simply grind until it is as fine as white flour.

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Ramen made with BOTW, shredded parsley root, cooked leeks and parsley root leaf.

To use as a soup base (it makes a lovely ramen powder), use 1 tbs to 2 cups of water. You can also use it to enhance a tired or weak broth by adding in the same ratio or slightly less. Be careful when adding to quickly-boiling water or broth, as the BOTW will make the hot liquid tend to foam vigorously if the heat is too high. The coarser the grind, the more likely you are to use it as a substitute for breadcrumbs in dishes with good success. In a heavily-breaded dish I may add a couple of tablespoons of BOTW for every cup of panko or breadcrumbs.

There are a myriad of other uses for BOTW, from adding to soups or stews to savory bread and pancake mixes, or adding to liquid sauces which will be strained in lieu of broth. The powder is relatively low in salt, so can be used as a lower-salt substitute or liason for dishes in which savory flavor is called for but salt must be kept to a minimum. BOTW can also substitute in any recipe that calls for ground dried mushrooms or mushroom powder. Bear in mind its’ salt content while using, and increase or decrease the salt content in the initial grind accordingly.

As I post more recipes using this handy kitchen helper I will post them here, for now :

Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

 

Forest Vinegar

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A late October scene in the Oak-Hickory Forest

Even for those of us who visit the woods nearly every day, there is something undeniably enchanting about a forest on a warm, clear day in autumn. I notice too, when I am in state and national parks that other people feel the same way. At no other time of the year are the woods so crowded. The aroma of the forest at this time of year is something truly special, the scent of fallen leaves and fungi, of pine needles and juniper branches filtering the autumn winds.

There are a number of excellent ways to capture this flavor, from pine family teas to juniper berry-laden pickles, bark and twig beers and wild sodas, and jams and sauces made from late-season fruit. The autumn is prime harvest time, with drying racks laid on every surface to preserve mushrooms and herbs, fruits and nuts. One of the best ways to incorporate this pantry of wild foods into everyday-use items is to make an infused vinegar. Single-ingredient vinegars are of course a perfectly fine way to experiment with flavors, but to me nothing beats an complex medley of seasonal flavors infused into a good cider, apple scrap or wine vinegar. At its’ best a forest vinegar is nuanced and sophisticated, and can lend a unique flavor and touch of personality to foods as diverse as your everyday salad, a jar of pickles, a marinade, or a finishing sauce.

I am going to present this recipe in two ways, first as an example of one of the forest vinegars I have made, second as a simple list of seasonal ingredients to experiment with, with a number of suggestions as to bases. You should feel free to experiment pretty widely with infused vinegars, just remember a few basic rules :

1. Sterilize your infusing vessel, and keep everything submerged while the flavors are infusing.

2. You may find a mother forming on the vinegar, like a kombucha SCOBY. This is natural and even desirable. You may also notice fermentation activity if you use ingredients that have wild yeast, such as juniper berries. This is fine, and generally dies off after a bit. I would suggest not overloading a vinegar with too many yeast-bearing ingredients to avoid an excess of activity.

3. Don’t overload the infusion with ingredients, allow for some space for the liquid to circulate and the flavors to mix thoroughly. I have tried using large quantities and shorter infusing times and the flavors come out strong but less-integrated. The longer these very disparate materials spend in each others company, the more they will rub off on each other and create a complex harmony of flavor.

4. Know when to strain. Strain when your tastebuds tell you to strain. Don’t hold out for the promise of more flavor, especially if you have a concentration of bitter ingredients. Bitterness develops over time–a good example would be the chinese bitter orange (Poincirus trifoliata), which makes an excellent vinegar but will turn quite bitter if the oranges are left in for more than a few days. If you find the infusion beginning to taste too bitter for you, strain it immediately. Better to have a weak forest vinegar than one that is unusable.

5. Know the flavors of what you are using – don’t just chuck something in because it is cool and you know it to be edible. This is especially true of ingredients with strong or bitter flavors–a heavy concentration of things like turkey tails or juniper berries may overpower a subtle blend of other less assertive flavors.

The following recipe makes a great batch of vinegar, and is a good starting point to experiment with. If you’re a total novice but can assemble the ingredients, it’s a safe and stable recipe to use as is. As you become more familiar with ingredients, and fine the ones that grow locally to you, it’s a good basis from which to add or remove ingredients as whim and season dictate. Because I am posting this in Winter, I’ve chosen a recipe which uses only ingredients which are still fairly available or were dried in late autumn (the mushrooms). The oyster mushrooms can be store-bought or you could even use conventional mushrooms, they are present mainly to round out the flavor of the stronger turkeys tail.

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Forest Vinegar #3

Combine in a large jar :

2 oz toasted hickory bark, broken into pieces

1 oz pine needles, cut into pieces

1 oz spicebush twig, broken into pieces

1 oz hemlock branches, cut into pieces

1/2 oz dried oyster mushrooms

1 oz dried turkey tail or dryads saddle mushrooms

1 1/2 oz rosehips from Rosa multiflora or cultivated rose

6 cups apple cider or apple scraps vinegar, homemade or good quality (look for brands with “the mother” like Bragg’s)

Cover and keep ingredients submerged, shake or stir regularly and allow to infuse until the flavor is to your liking. I usually allow at least three weeks to infuse this combination, you may also find that it infuses faster or slower depending on ambient temperature.

There is really no limit to what can be added to these vinegars, and below I’ve included two lists of seasonal ingredients that are often available in my location (Northeast US). Obviously some of these may not persist in winter in some locations, but in general even faded or dormant edible plants can provide useful flavors. A handful of worn and weathered mugwort flowerheads in December or some brick cap mushrooms past their prime can often bring a subtle flavor to infusions that might be overwhelming were the parts used when in the full bloom of their season. The key here is to work with small amounts of various ingredients to create subtle effects, never allowing one flavor to dominate the proceedings. Remember that strong-flavored ingredients create strong-flavored results. This list is by no means exhaustive, just a jumping-off point really.

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Another late-autumn Forest Vinegar, with bayberry leaf, juniper cone, sweet birch twig, sassafras root and birch polypore fungus with other aromatics.

Winter ingredients for Forest Vinegar

Roots (sassafras, wild carrot and parsnip, burdock, pushki, smilax)

Needles & Branches (pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, arbor vitae)

Twigs (sassafras, spicebush, sweet birch)

Fungi (turkey tail, birch polypore, oyster mushroom, wood ear, brick cap, velvet foot, chaga)

Fruits (LInden viburnum, blackhaws, juniper, crabapples, persimmons, cranberries, Highbush cranberries)

Leaves (wild chervil, garlic mustard, northern bayberry, deadnettle, ground ivy, bittercress, wintergreen)

Persistent dried tops of autumn-flowering aromatic plants (mugwort, wild carrot, goldenrod)

Autumn ingredients for Forest Vinegar

Including most of the above, plus :

Fallen Leaves (beech, maple, mulberry, oak, black walnut)

Fungi (too many and varied to list, but boletes, oysters, dryads saddle, and resinous polypore are all good for flavoring vinegars)

Fruits (apples, pears, silverberries, paw paw, persimmon, bitter orange, quince, spicebush)

Leaves (wild bergamot, northern bayberry, mugwort, wild carrot, pushki, dandelion, asiatic dayflower, quickweed)

Flowers (goldenrod, evening primrose, chicory, wild mustards, new england aster)

Seeds (pushki, wild carrot, nettle, evening primrose, wild mustards)

Pumpkin Wild Curry

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An easy and delicious curry perfect for my nearly-wild curry mix, or any good homemade mix from wild or cultivated spices. I like to use this recipe to test out different combinations or variations on my wild or cultivated curry mixes, since it has a very simple set of ingredients that I almost always have on hand in the fall and winter. It’s the perfect test recipe to use for your own variations and experiments – the tartness of the tomatoes is softened by the sweetness of pumpkin (calabaza squash works great too), creating a perfect canvas for your spice combination!

This recipe works great on the stovetop, but can also be made in a slow-cooker. When I cook stews like this in a slow-cooker, I don’t simply add everything at once, but follow the basic procedure for stovetop cooking, adding the ingredients in stages to the slow-cooker set on high.

Combine in a pan or slow-cooker

2 tbs neutral vegetable oil

2 tbs ground curry powder, masala mix, or near-wild curry mix

4 oz onion, minced  (grated if using slow-cooker)

2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced

3/4 cup chopped canned tomatoes, strained of juice

Cook until onions are softened (10 minutes stovetop, 1 hour slow-cooker), then add:

1 lb. pumpkin or calabaza squash, cut into chunks

3/4 cup tomato juice or stock or nettle tea or water

1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water

Cover and cook until pumpkin is softened and liquid is somewhat reduced (45 minutes stovetop, 3-4 hours slow cooker)

This is excellent served over brown rice or lentil dal. I like to add a little chopped fresh cilantro, wild chervil, pushkin or other aromatic herb leaf. I also recommend combining with tart fermented vegetables or torn bitter leaves of wild or cultivated greens, such as dames rocket, dandelion, or escarole. To tart things up a bit, dried coconut flakes (unsweetened), crushed cashews, fermented chile sauces, grated lemon zest, and thinly sliced thai basil leaves are all good options. But the beauty of this recipe is it is so simple it can be accompanied with whatever is handy.

Bayberry Salt

Flavored salts are an excellent way to make use of some of the wild spices that are available to intrepid gatherers. Various fruits, cones, nuts, mushrooms and leaves can be used, anything that can be dehydrated and combined with salt. This often helps preserve more unstable wild spices, and prolongs the life of their flavor beyond the season of their emergence. A good example of this would be hemlock salt, in which the green cones of Eastern Hemlock are combined with salt to preserve the unique, robust, citrus-y flavor they possess in their green state.

Bayberry leaves are available almost year-round, so preserving them isn’t at a premium. The leaves do tend to grow dark and unappealing in winter, although they may linger on late in warm winters or coastal locations (see photo below). The leaves of Myrica pensylvanica and other Myrica species are often mentioned in field guides and foraging books as a substitute for bay leaves (i.e. the Laurel Bay, Laurus nobilis). While this is certainly an option, I’m not a huge fan of “substitution” as a principle for utilizing wild food. I would prefer to exploit the flavors of the ingredient itself and craft recipes that reflect that flavor.

To my taste buds, Myrica leaves have a more complex and “bright” flavor than Laurel bay, with a less pronounced potency. In other words, if you’re substituting for Laurel leaf in a recipe, double up the amount of Myrica leaves used. If you are just enjoying them on their own merits, the following seasoning salt is a far more effective method. This is one of my go-to salts, perhaps the go-to salt, although juniper, black trumpet, roasted tomato and hemlock salts all get an enthusiastic nod for adding to dishes in lieu of ordinary sea or kosher salt. But bayberry leaf salt seems to be the crown prince of them all, serving as a final sprinkle to dishes instead of salt and pepper, but also being used in recipes themselves. In spring I roast whole chickens sprinkled with bayberry salt, after slipping pushki leaves under the skin. In the fall, grilled mushrooms and onions explode with flavor given a simple dusting of the stuff. You get the picture.

Grind together in a food processor :

6 cups bayberry leaves, dried

1 cup salt, preferably sea salt

Store in a well-sealed glass jar at room temperature. Lasts at least one year.

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Some Northern Bayberry still clinging on in a coastal location in January.

The Best Way to Pine

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My apologies for the pun, but this is seriously the best way to make a Pine Needle tea, or for that matter a tea from any member of the Pine Family. After many long and frustratingly-erratic results making a pine tea on the stovetop, I began to use my slow-cooker to optimize results. This recipe relies on a larger quantity of needles that usually called for in pine tea recipes, which means you needn’t spend a lot of time cutting them into tiny pieces.

I STRONGLY recommend you use a crock pot or slow-cooker for this, if you have one. It more or less eliminates the chance of human error and more importantly it ensures you don’t lose an ounce of Vitamin C from the preparation. The flavor is deep, strong, and naturally sweet and can be not only drunk as a tea but used in secondary ferments of kombucha, turned into a syrup or sorbetto, or made into a brine in which to ferment vegetables. Since first using the slow-cooker for pine needle tea I now use it exclusively.

Place in slow cooker or stock pot :

200 g or 6 oz pine needles or fir or spruce or hemlock (Tsuga) branches (a small basketful)

3 L or 12 cups water

Set heat to High if using slow cooker. Bring to just short of a boil if using a stock pot. DO NOT BOIL.

Cover and maintain over as high a heat as possible without boiling for 4-8 hours in a slow cooker, 1-2 hours on stovetop. Shut off the slow cooker or remove the pot from the heat and allow the needles to rest in the tea for several hours or overnight. Strain the tea through a cheesecloth.

You may notice that if the mixture has rested overnight there is some small level of fermentation activity. This is ideal if adding the mixture to a kombucha secondary ferment, using as a pickling medium, or turning it into wine. Simply refrigerate the tea in order to keep fermentation from proceeding any further.

To make a pickling brine from this tea, simply add salt in a ratio of 50 g / Liter of finished tea, bring the mixture to a low heat and stir the salt until dissolved. To make a syrup, do the same but using a ratio of either 1:1 or 1/2:1 sugar to tea.

Nearly Wild Curry Mix

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Curry powder always seemed to me a shabby thing to buy, it being so much more interesting to work with the whole spices themselves. I was spurred on by one of the first cookbooks I ever bought, a collection of recipes and information about spices published to sell the goods of a local spice importer. By understanding the spices individually, I was able to experiment with them culinarily, adding more or less to a mix depending on what I intended to do with them. Cardamom and cloves, for instance, could be added if I was using a mix to spice tea or desserts with. I would add more dried curry leaves and turmeric when making a mix for fish.

When I began to seriously incorporate more of the native and invasive wild spices of the world of wild food, it wasn’t a great stretch of the imagination to start to envision a masala or curry mix made entirely of foraged aromatics. And while an excellent entirely wild curry mix can be made, I usually find that I miss the cumin acutely. For day to day use and especially when replacing imported curry powder in traditional recipes, I have settled on a curry mix that is “nearly wild,” relying only mainly on foraged ingredients. It is also quite flexible, and may be adapted, altered or expanded by anyone who uses it, with many replacements or omissions possible. I believe it can be used in most temperate climates without too much trouble, assuming the availability of traditional imported spices to replace what cannot be foraged.

I have omitted any turmeric or substitute for turmeric in this recipe. To many, the taste and color of curries cannot be separated from that spice. Now that organic fresh turmeric is much more widely available, I use it in these curries, when it can be added at the time of cooking. You may wish to add that or the powdered form to affect a more traditional coloration. I sometimes add annatto seed instead for “local color,” but of course the color is a different one. Below is the recipe, see notes after the recipe for information on substitutions. I have deliberately split the list of ingredients into three groups.

 

Combine :

 

1 ) essential bases

1 tbs. black mustard seed (wild or domestic)

1 tbs. cumin seed

1 tbs. wild parsnip or pushki or coriander seed

1-2 tsp wild carrot seed (optional, omit if using coriander seed)

 

2) optional aromatics

2-3 northern bayberry leaves or 1-2 bay leaves or 8 curry (kari) leaves

1-2 tsp ripened (red) spicebush berries, dried or 1/2-1 tsp allspice

1-2 magnolia buds, dried or pinches of magnolia leaf or 1 clove

1 tsp american juniper berries or 1/4 tsp european juniper

1-3 eastern hemlock cones

 

3) “hot” or piquant aromatics

1-2 tsp prickly ash berry or sichuan peppercorn

1-3 tsp waterpepper seeds (or 1/2-1 tsp black peppercorns)

1-2 tsp chile flakes or 1-3 small dried hot chiles

 

Combine all the above in a heavy pan and heat over low to medium heat, tossing every thirty seconds or so, until the spices are toasted and fragrant. You can also store the mix, combined and use as whole spices in pickles or broths, or toast and grind it to order, which will give the best flavor. My only advice would be to use the whole recipe when grinding or using to infuse, as the many different-sized and shaped ingredients tend to separate themselves in the jar.

The trinity of mustard-cumin-wild parsnip is essential to this mix, nearly everything else can be omitted or varied. If using domesticated mustard seed, the variety to use is the brown or black mustard seeds preferred in Indian cuisine. Wild mustard genera which produce seeds that can be used for this include Brassica, Lepidium, Barbarea, Thlaspi, etc. Wild parsnip or pushki (Heracleum maximum, other edible Heracleum species can be substituted) seed, along with wild carrot seed all bear some resemblance to family member coriander. Pushki and wild parsnip have a drier, earthier flavor to them while wild carrot is spicier and lightly citrus-y. Always remember to avoid wild carrot seed if pregnant or desiring to become so–while I doubt that the small amount involved would have much effect unless consumed in massive quantities, wild carrot seed is traditionally considered an abortifacient.

The second group of aromatics are all wild but any can be omitted or substituted with the imported spices listed, with the exception of hemlock cones, which really have no parallel. If there is one wild spice in this group that I would strongly recommend investigating (and not replacing with allspice, which is a paltry substitute), it is spicebush. Native to the eastern US, it is a native understory tree which produces a green berry in summer that matures to a deep red in autumn. It is resinous and pungent and can be used ripe or unripe, fresh or dried. It has become inseparable from various curry mixes and is the most distinctive background player in this recipe, in my opinion.

Heat can be regulated by adjusting the last group of ingredients, which is in part why I have left a range for those items. I would describe this mix as moderately spicy, but not extremely so, even if using the larger numbers and including all three hot items. For a heavier spice, simply add more of whichever piquant aromatic you prefer.

Acorn & Potato “Burgers”

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This is an eminently simple preparation, adapted from a traditional German recipe. My eternal thanks to Steffi / Sycamore Spirits for translating this and many other recipes for me from a cookbook brought to the states with her from Germany. Though acorns are considered largely a famine food in most of Europe, they aren’t really thought of as food at all here in the US, even though they formed a substantial part of the diet of many early settlers.

For me, there is likely no more significant wild food in my diet than acorns. Not perhaps, in terms of quantity – but in terms of importance. I look forward with great eagerness to harvesting acorns in the fall, for while time-consuming it is a supremely relaxing activity. Processing acorns, too may be an exhaustive activity but it pleases me to no end, and there are few wild food products I treat with more reverence than a jar of pickled acorns or a tub of acorn flour.

These acorn burgers use the latter, combined with milled or pureed potatoes to make a burger that is soft, somewhat fragile and has an amazing rich umami flavor. Unlike a lot of “veggie” burgers it doesn’t rely on pulses or TVP so it melts in your mouth, the way a properly cooked burger does. You don’t need particularly finely-ground flour for this, but you do need to process the potatoes so that they are fluffy and light, so a food mill, ricer or other form of fine-processing is required.

Combine a mixing bowl :

1 1/2 cups riced or milled cooked potatoes

1/2 cup acorn flour (preferably cold-leeched red oak flour)

1/3 cup grated onion

1 tbs prepared mustard (preferably high quality whole-grain or homemade)

salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper, optional

Mix the ingredients by hand and form into small patties. This recipe usually makes four burgers, about 3.5 oz each before frying. I usually fry the patties in a small amount of oil until brown and crispy on the outside, but you can also bake them at high heat.

The original recipe calls for the burgers to be stuffed with meat or sautéed mushrooms, and this can be done (I would recommend adding a few tablespoons of flour first if you go that route). However, I have found that simply adding sautéed mushrooms to the burger is much tastier. These are incredible simply served on a soft roll, with a dab of chile sauce or mayonnaise, some crispy lettuce and a few sliced onions. Really, any way you would prepare a traditional hamburger, falafel, or kebab meat suits them, from gyros to banh mi to Big Mac style double decker burgers. The flavor is deep but quite simple, so goes with almost any kind of topping, pickle or sauce.

 

Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs” with Acorn & Potato “Burgers” – two winter favorites

I love the humble Oyster Mushroom (Pleuratus ostreatus and others) : it appears in our area, in one incarnation or another, in almost every season. It’s dependability reduces it to a minor note in the logs of mushroom collectors – it can often assuage the hurt of not finding more esteemed mushrooms, such as morels in spring or maitake in fall, but few people seem to get excited about it. Some mushroom hunters seem to dismiss or even despise it, but I adore it. While it may not have the deep, rich flavor of a porcini it is a reliable workhorse mushroom and can stand in for more exotic or laudable fungi in spare seasons. More importantly for my needs, it serves admirably as the basis for rich stocks and essences, dries well, and appears in such quantity that it can be used to make mushroom ketchup or soy sauce or put up as mushroom pickles.

Beyond all these virtues, it has a quality that isn’t often celebrated even by its’ enthusiasts, at least not in Western food culture : oysters have a firm, dense texture. While they can be reduced down, or even rendered crisp or dry with enough cooking, the better option is to use them in recipes that celebrate this texture. This is just one such recipe, operating on the principle that finely chopped oysters resemble meat when cooked quickly, allowing their natural texture and moisture-retention to become a quality that assists in a dish with an excellent flavor and a remarkable similarity to meat-based polpette.

Conventionally-grown or home-grown oyster mushrooms can of course be substituted in this dish, you may also find it works with the conventional button mushroom of the supermarket. I recommend using the brown variety, often labelled “Cremini” as they have a bit more structure. If collecting wild oyster mushrooms or harvesting home-grown ones, you will want to collect them when they are firm and have attained at least most of their full growth, but before they become very dry, yellow, and fragile. You will also want to avoid collecting water-logged specimens, or if you do being sure to dry them and squeeze them of excess moisture first.

Combine in a mixing bowl :

5 oz oyster mushrooms, very finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor

3-4 oz onion, grated and squeezed free of liquid or pulsed in a food processor

1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

2 tbs mushroom powder or “bouillon of the woods” (see note)

1-2 eggs or equivalent egg substitute

salt to taste

dashes of mushroom soy, soy, maggi seasoning, or worchestershire sauce

herbs or dried herbs, if desired

freshly ground black pepper or american juniper, if desired

Mix the ingredients with your hands and shape into golf ball-sized “meatballs.” There should be about 12. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc. I have deliberately kept the size of the batch in this recipe small, so that you can experiment with the preparation of it and determine how best to process and cook the meatballs. I personally favor chopping the oyster mushrooms by hand, finding that the food processor renders far too uniform a product. If resemblance to meat is your goal with this recipe, however, that may be the route you want to go. I also recommend using both mushroom soy and a dash or two of maggi or worchestershire.

“Bouillon of the woods” is a simple preparation that I make as often as I find chicken of the woods fungi (Laetiporus spp.) that are just a bit too far gone to serve as is. A simple dried mushroom powder can be substituted – for which all you need to do is to grind dried mushrooms in a spice grinder. You may use wild mushrooms you have collected and dehydrated yourself, or dried mushrooms from the fancy or conventional supermarket (it’s actually a fantastic use for the dust or shake found in the bottom of bags of purchased dried mushrooms). For the preparation of my “bouillon of the woods,” I add a pinch or two of salt and a little crumbled wild bergamot, with perhaps another spice or two if desired, to a base of dried and ground chicken of the woods. It is meant to resemble the bouillon cubes found in supermarkets, but in a powder form and with much less salt. Another possible substitute if you don’t have any dried or powdered mushrooms is to use a purchased mushroom bouillon cube, such as the Telma brand from Israel. If a commercial product is used, you will likely want to reduce the amount of salt added.

Once assembled, these can be baked in hot oven, grilled or fried in vegetable oil or other fat. I prefer the latter two options, which tend to keep the insides moist while browning the outside nicely. You can also cook them in a sauce, but I would recommend rolling the shaped meatballs in either a little flour or extra breadcrumbs and then frying first before doing so. If you encounter difficulty in keeping the meatballs together, you may have had too much moisture in your mushrooms. I find that even conventionally-grown mushrooms require a little bit of drying before incorporating into polpette.

While these are quite tasty on their own, especially with a nice sauce for dipping as an appetizer (I love them with blackhaw ketchup), they can also be substituted for pork, beef, or veal meatballs in classic Italian, European, or Asian cuisine dishes. One of my personal favorite ways to serve them is in a dish inspired by Marcella Hazan’s recipe for winter pork meatballs smothered in savoy cabbage.

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the below recipe made with kale and cabbage greens and romaine lettuce

After cooking the meatballs, I cover them to keep them warm and then in a sautée pan heat a little oil or butter. To this I add whatever greens I have available, whether wild or conventionally cultivated, adding the firmer or denser greens first and the more fragile ones later. Cauliflower greens, cabbage, kale, collards and the like are cooked a bit longer, and then blanched wild mustards, wintercress, dandelion greens or even raw watercress or lettuce are added with minced garlic once the firmer greens have softened. A minute or two later, the “meatballs” are then returned to the pan with a little white wine, and perhaps a splash of balsamic or blackhaw vinegar, and the whole is covered until heated all the way through.

This is of course, just one way to do it…