A Salad in the Snow

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A couple of weeks ago I was craving a salad, full of the sharp and sometimes bitter “weeds” and wild plants of spring. And while there was a little bit of snow on the ground and ice on the waters, I was confident that I could find enough wild greenery that wasn’t frost-bound to make a salad.

Make no mistake, this wasn’t a survival exercise. I just wanted a nice salad, to complement my more traditional wintery offerings of dried and preserved goods and winter produce.

This was a useful test of winter foraging skills. Not only did I have to remember where certain winter greens and herbs grew, I had to think of areas in which they wouldn’t be covered in an inch or more of snow. They would still be perfectly edible, but water-logged and wilted. It was a challenge to my memory of not only wild plants but the landscape around them. I needed perimeters, areas where there was a either shelter from or drainage for the snow. I had to do a bit of looking, but first I had to do a bit of thinking.

I found tiny cleavers (Galium aparine) and patches of chickweed (Stellaria media) peeking their way up from an old field where long dried pieces of last years overgrown grasses provided shelter. Around the bases of trees and other well-drained spots in the woods crept garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata) and the mild leaves of mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica). In my own yard in garden vegetable rows were hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) and, poking up above the snow and perfectly crisp, field garlic (Allium vineale). Fresh, tiny rosehips made for a perfect garnish, the whole thing being simply dressed with a pinch of salt, some olive oil and just a bit of vinegar.

The salad was delicious, the exercise (in both senses) invaluable. Sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to discover something beautiful in the snow.

Edible Vs. Palatable

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When it comes to enjoyment or dislike of various flavors, no two people will ever completely resonate. For each of us, the answer to whether a particular food (wild or domesticated) is edible, palatable or actively distasteful is always going to be different.

Wild plants place us in a particularly easy to resolve area of this conversation. If something is technically edible but we don’t enjoy it, we leave it uncollected for those who do. For example, I actively dislike the berries of the wildly invasive Japanese barberry. I sincerely doubt that a time will come in my life when I will need this overwintering berry to survive. But if I ever did, you can bet that I would regard them as palatable. And then their sheer abundance would then be a blessing rather than a curse.

So by “palatable” in a wild plants context we are usually indicating a plant we aren’t interested in collecting. The distinction is an important one to bear in mind when studying and learning new plants and mushrooms because it often keeps us from over-harvesting or attempting crazy, time-intensive kitchen preparations trying to properly cook something we’ve learned is “edible.” It’s another reason why multiple sourcing any wild plant or mushroom is so very critical. In general, one will begin to get a sense of the limitations of using or preparing one’s catch by the widespread consensus on whether something is edible or merely palatable.

Into the latter category one will often find mushrooms and plants whose use is classified as “technically edible” or “medicinal.” The birch polypore mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus, pictured above) could be considered both. It’s an abundant late fall to winter mushroom in our area and can be used to make a tea for drinking or a broth for cooking. Technically, I could probably figure out a way to reduce its spongy, dense body into something that could pass through my body. But it would require such an expenditure of energy that it’s unlikely I’ll ever conduct the experiment. I’m content with steeping and infusing it, where it’s neither palatable nor distasteful but nicely bitter and useful for cooking and health.

When does an otherwise excellent edible become merely palatable? Beyond matters of taste, all foods require proper preparation to be delicious rather than simply digestible. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had (and made) a tasteless potato at some point in our lives, but then we discover how to cook them. The same is true of wild plants–each new ingredient must be learned on its’ own. It is at this point that comparisons to domesticated plants and cooking directions such as “prepare like asparagus” become ineffectual. One must learn to prepare nettles like nettles, not like spinach. Needless to say, the proper preparation is especially important to bear in mind when elements of toxicity are involved, as with milkweed or pokeweed. More often than not though, it is the difference between something one enjoys eating and something one merely gets through.

Winter Celery Root Salad

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Take :

1 lb celery root, peeled and grated or julienned on a mandoline

* Save the peels and leftover pieces from grating and use in celery root syrup (recipe to follow).

Toss grated root with:

1/2 tsp salt

Allow to stand for at least 20 minutes.

Add :

about 1/2 cup strong fermented greens, chopped fine

about 1/3 cup pickled onions, diced or chopped small

about 1/4 cup sweet hot pickled carrots

* These can be around these proportions of any variety of different homemade or purchased fermented or pickled vegetables. The key is to play off of celery roots sweetness and use more intense and tart flavors. I would also avoid adding too much quantity of any one thing rather than overpower the celery root.

Toss, add :

2 tbs capers, chopped fine

A splash of vinegar of lemon juice if desired

1/4 cup of sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina), crumbled

2 tbs or so of wild basil (Cliopodium vulgare) leaves and flowers, crumbled

1-2 jalapenos or other fairly mild chile, diced

Toss and Serve

This salad produces its own dressing in the seasoned liquid created by salting the celery root and the various brined or fermented vegetables. It shouldn’t require oil, but it certainly won’t mind it. Try it with the modest amount of chiles recommended and see how it suits. I found that the addition of more ruined the finish of the celery root. This is a dish that benefits from a night in the fridge to let the flavors meld. It can be served chilled or at room temperature.

This is excellent served as a contrast to more rich or heavy dishes, being sharp and clean and quite healthy (unless of course one is on a low salt diet). Essentially a mixed pickle in the guise of a salad, it would be a good compliment to dishes such as catfish, fatty tuna, pork, tofu, beans, eggplant, okra, potatoes, beets, noodles and noodle soups. It works best as a salad if used in a sequence of small dishes

Just as the fermented or pickled vegetables could be endlessly varied, so could the herbs used. In the winter I tend to use dried herbs, and in this case wanted to showcase two forage herbs, but in the remaining seasons I would use fresh herbs to fit my fancy.

KEY : The key fact to remember with this recipe is to taste it constantly, especially when you’re experimenting with different combinations of fermented and pickled vegetables, and adjust accordingly.

Mock Strawberry : A Disdained Common Edible

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As a child I used to gobble the “wild strawberries” that, then as now, popped up in our lawn and mulched beds alike. Sure, they didn’t taste like much but they were a pleasant nibble. Perhaps more caution was in order, but the darned things are so inoffensive looking that it would be difficult to suspect them of being hazardous. Older and slightly wiser, nowadays I don’t tend to eat anything without being quite careful about it. In the grocery store, one examines a package. In the wild or the backyard, one makes sure to clearly identify a plant before consuming it.

These wild “strawberries” were of course not true wild strawberries (which are far from flavorless) but the invasive, pernicious ground cover known as Potentilla indica or Duchesnea indica. The confusion over classification is a recent one and Duchesnea is still mainly used. Potentilla seems to be the more accurate fit (though I am hardly a botanist), since that genus contains the cinquefoils whose leaves are used in very much the same way as those of mock strawberry.

Leaves? That’s right. For years and years I have eaten the charmingly inoffensive fruit of the mock strawberry without realizing that the far more interesting and useful part of the plant was staring me in the face. The leaves are an excellent food and tea, tasting faintly of cucumber (with a hint of sage) and widely available for almost the entire year. For years I have let this plant grow wild in my yard and planted beds for the simple fact that it is harmless and excludes other, non-useful weeds. Now? I will definitely encourage its’ growth and use it whenever necessary. Which, honestly could be often–the only plant that grows more prolifically in my yard in the off-season is ground ivy, equally edible but quite bitter once springtime has ended.

So what about those fruits? Many find them banal or insipid, but I consider that a judgement based more on its flavor in comparison with other wild berries or with commercially cultivated fruit. Another common observation is that they taste like watermelon bitten very close to the rind. That rings true to me, and also implies the thing I do really like about mock strawberry, which is its’ pleasing texture. Too often we are disdainful of things which have mild or inoffensive tastes. I have a feeling we would be less disdainful if we did not have such a surplus of food. Then we might be quite pleased to have a plant which is edible in the Northeast in one form or another for almost the entire year.

When we forage we learn a lot of lessons about plants and our relationship with them. Mock strawberry is a good example : as much as we might despise this little scrubby ground cover, we can potentially (no pun intended) learn from it and its’ ways. Sometimes the best and most useful plants are those which we most ignore. I have always tolerated and sometimes enjoyed mock strawberry as an invasive plant which excluded far more annoying weeds. Now I just might let it run riot, and delight in the free surplus of winter greens and summer berries. Insipid? Maybe. But when you’re starving don’t come over and scoop up my “mock” strawberries. I’ll still be enjoying them, tasteless or not.

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Why Forage?

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A natural enough question to ask nowadays, and as good a one as any to get the ball rolling.

Really, though, why do anything we don’t have to do? The need to make an effort to prolong our own existence has in many ways been taken out of our hands in the modern era. Sure, we still need to do something in order to survive – whether it is to work a 9 to 5 or simply go on the dole. Neither of which, to be honest, is usually much fun. Nor does it create a sense of engagement or excitement in our minds, having replaced those desirable states with a world-weary awareness of mundanity and toil. In both cases, the direct relationship between our work and our sustenance has been largely removed, replaced by a system of exchange based on pieces of paper. Fairly quickly on, the process of learning and changing and growing each season or each day in order to provide for ourselves becomes merely a matter of maintaining the status quo. Challenging our assumptions has been taken off the menu, so to speak.

The short answer to the question why forage? Because it is engaging, and it is exciting. It represents a contrast. The effort of procuring food from ones’ environs is far more interesting than your average trip to the supermarket. Walking in the woods or scanning the perimeter of an abandoned field is a dynamic, stimulating activity. Cruising supermarket aisles is just never going to be that interesting, no matter how colorful or unique the produce. And truth be told, most of the time we’re not looking at produce. We’re picking up boxes and wondering, can I eat this? Is this… real? The short answer to that is that it isn’t. And the effort involved in creating that type of food-like product places demands on our environment that we really have yet to fully comprehend. Even the whole foods that we rightly tout such as grains and vegetables have often been flown or shipped at great expense, not to mention harvested using questionable gas-burning machines and chemicals and equally questionable labor practices.

The long answer to the question why forage? Well, it’s long. Let’s break it down.

1) Foraging is what we have always done. You might not remember, but your mother remembers. And if she doesn’t than your grandmother remembers. And if she doesn’t… well you can’t go too far back before you come across someone in your family who did. They might not be around anymore, but nearly everyone did one kind of foraging or gathering in the era before refrigeration. It is a tangible connection with our past, as real as looking through old photos or visiting ancestry.com. And one doesn’t need documents on paper to establish this connection. Simply put, if you know where your ancestors lived then you can figure out in pretty short order what they grew and gathered and ate. And guess what? It’s the same stuff you can grow and gather and eat today, maybe even if you don’t live in the same place (one thing we can thank the modern era for). Now that’s a real connection.

2) Foraging is educational. I know, I know, learning things is supposed to be boring. That’s what our society keeps telling us. We parrot a notion of education being important but we constantly treat those who seek after knowledge with a kind of disdain. I’ve never been able to comprehend it–for me learning has always been exciting, and the idea that I would ever know all the “answers” is a foreign one. One of the most exciting things about plants and mushrooms is that NO ONE will ever know everything about them. Not even in the narrowest sense. The incredible diversity of plants and fungi even within small geographical area is nothing short of staggering. The thought that as intensely as I have studied these matters, I will NEVER run out of new things to learn is a constant inspiration to me. Rather than making me feel like it renders the whole endeavor pointless, it is precisely this that keeps me going. I will never know everything, but perhaps one day I will have a real comprehension of how deep my ignorance is. It’s a humbling and fascinating process.

3) Foraging is free (mostly). Anybody else seriously sick of paying money for every damn thing? I know I am. I’ve never been a serious breadwinner, preferring to concentrate on things that make me feel happy and fulfilled rather than ones that fill my bank account. Nine times out of ten when I leave the house these days I return having not spent a dime. This doesn’t please me for any miserly reason, in fact the money I’ve saved usually ends up being given to local farmers or artisans, plunked down in exchange for vegetables that I can’t or don’t grow, or fine local cheeses or honey or craft goods. Supplementing what I grow or forage with local, responsibly farmed goods is one of the big plusses that keeps me on the trail, in the garden, and–most importantly–out of the supermarket.

4) Foraging opens your eyes. Most people unfamiliar with forage think that it involves a lot of time spent in the woods and wilderness, being rugged and outdoorsy and climbing up trees for berries and so on. It really doesn’t. Most of what we gather comes from our own backyards, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s one of the first things you learn, especially if you begin by walking with a local expert or trustworthy enthusiast. Edible plants are EVERYWHERE. Humble, delicious wild plants are especially most abundant where human activity has left a deep mark–what we planties usually refer to as “disturbed ground.” And this eye-opening doesn’t extend to just knowledge of edible plants. After all, knowing what is edible means knowing what isn’t. And the knowledge of plants becomes very quickly the knowledge of trees, of fungi and mosses, of stone and soil types, in short the knowledge of ecosystems. People who focus on ecology are quick to hammer home the complexity and variety of the systems that they study, but they rarely seem interested (typical bane of the specialist) in communicating how ABUNDANTLY CLEAR many of these systems are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how a transition forest grows and changes, and what the native and invasive plants are, and what kinds of relationships emerge. It only takes someone who is willing to look at the world with open eyes, filled with wonder and free of preconceptions. And the more you look, the more you forage, the more you will see.

5) Foraging is healthy. Not only does it quite often involve good exercise, it also means collecting plants which are nutritional powerhouses. The simple, oft-cursed stinging nettle delivers a level of vitamin content that should have commercially-grown spinach quaking in its’ chemically-enhanced boots. Even without really getting involved in the true medicinal plants or the medicinal aspects of wild edible plants, the pure nutritional content of this free and abundant food should be enough to stimulate the interest of anyone who would like to live more healthfully. Of course, our society likes to steer those people towards expensive supplements and vitamins, in short, manufactured goods. Unfortunately, most of what you will pick up at health food stores is just as manufactured and processed as regular dry goods, only sold at even more of a premium to enchant those who think good health comes with a hefty price tag. In fact, the humble violet (which grows rampantly in both yards and woods in my area every spring) contains four times as much Vitamin C in its leaves and blossoms as an orange and a full complement of Vitamin A to boot (over 100% of our daily need in one half-cup of cooked greens). This is but one of a multitude of examples, most of which are probably a lot closer to your neighborhood than the remote locales in which many medicinal botanical ingredients are grown.

There are an abundance of reasons to forage. There are also some reasons not to, but I don’t mean that in a categorical sense. Rather, there are times when one needs to know when to leave well enough alone, for reasons of pollution, law or ecology. That concept will be addressed in another article, for now it is enough to say that there are a multitude of pros and most of our cons are the result of habituation. Foraging seems strange and unnecessary to most modern Westerners, but a hundred years ago our own ancestors would have found our attitudes puzzling. In fact, many moderns in cultures outside our own and outside of the large mega-cities would simply shake their heads and carry on supplementing their lives with free and abundant healthful plants.