The Fourth Season

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A typical January scene

Wild food gathering in the temperate parts of the world inevitably means coping with the problem of winter. What do you do? Can you do anything?

Yes, you can. Actually, there’s quite a bit going on out there. You just can’t see it. The earth and (eventually, often) the snow conceal most of it from view. The rest is made invisible by our long conditioning that “nothing happens in the winter” when it comes to plants.

The foraging literature itself is faintly discouraging when it comes to winter. They don’t tell you not to do it, but the implication is that it isn’t particularly worthwhile. Emphasis tends to be placed since the Gibbons era on enjoying the fruits of the other seasons of harvest, sitting back in your chair with a seed catalog, shelling hickory nuts and sipping on persimmon wine. The winter section of every foraging book is like an afterthought, usually accompanied by a list of plants so desultory that it squashes the imagination, rather than firing it.

Yet, we all know this is precisely what is needed in the winter. A spark, a kick, especially after the holiday madness/joy (or forced madness/joy) is over and our bodies start to go into hibernation mode. The key is in viewing winter as not a dead time or a rest time but as just another time, simply another season. The activity of plants and trees and fungi around you hasn’t stopped, it’s just different. Which means we need to learn to look differently, to reassess our environment with fresh eyes.

More than just being a neglected time of year to gather wild foods, winter is also overlooked when it comes to studying wild plants and fungi. But if our knowledge of nature is to expand alongside our use of its’ resources, then winter is an ideal time to study as well as collect. Not only will our attention be drawn to interesting things we normally overlook, like mosses and bracket fungi, but towards the familiar things that have changed in aspect. And while the idea of looking at a bunch of dried twigs and seeds might not seem as romantic or appealing as trekking through a spring woods, in reality it can tell us quite a bit about the life cycle of these plants. Ultimately, knowledge of a wild food resource through all of its seasons, all of its changes, is really what we are after : comprehension of the patterns of its growth and how it deploys its energy in order to make our best use of it.

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Uncharacteristic, but possible in a mild winter : Wild mustard forming its broccoli-like flowering head around Christmas time.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will be discussing in some detail how best to take advantage of the undervalued resource of wild food in winter, including profiles of specific plants and accompanying recipes. I hope to be able by springtime to have made my point that winter isn’t an “off” or “dead” season but simply the fourth season. Perhaps it’s a bit more humble than the others, but one well worth getting outside for, and certainly no occasion to hang up the basket. For now, as an antidote to all those discouraging lists of winter wild foods in foraging books here is one with just some of the things I have either gathered or noted as available in the past few winters :

Acorns

Sow Thistle

Cranberries

Juniper “Berries”

Chaga

Watercress

Maple – Sap / Syrup

Rosehips

Pine Needles

Oyster Mushrooms

Blackhaw / Nannyberry

Dandelions – Greens and Root

Daylily Bulbs

Crabapple (hardy species)

Chickweed

Wild Parsnip

Spicebush – Twig

Henbit

Marsh Yellowcress

Chicory

Evening Primrose – Greens and Root

Bittercress

Velvet Shank Mushroom (Enokitake)

Highbush Cranberry

Yarrow

False Strawberry – Greens

Sunchoke / Jerusalem Artichoke

Persimmon

Cleavers / edible Bedstraw

Wild Carrot

Hawthorn – Berries

Pennycress

Plantain

Wintergreen – Leaves and Berries

Ground Ivy

Northern Bayberry

Nettles

Common Mallow

Spruce – Tips

Hickory Nuts

Cattail – Root

Birch – Twig

Turkey Tail Fungus

Wild Radish – Greens and Root

Thistle Root

Wild Chervil

Teasel

Wapato

Hemlock Tips

Sumac Fruit

Linden Viburnum

Garlic Mustard

Wood Ear Fungus

Purple Deadnettle

Birch Polypore Fungus

Winter cress

Wild Mustard

and, of course, everyones favorite :

Field Garlic !!!

Acorn Preparation, Hot Water Method

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Earlier this autumn, I wrote a few posts on Instagram (@mallorylodonnell) about processing acorns using the hot-water leaching method. I felt they were worth repeating on here, especially as a mild season has meant there are still viable acorns out there to collect. In any case, here is my hot-water method for leaching acorns of their tannins.

First, you must collect your acorns. Choose freshly-dropped acorns that look clean and feel firm and heavy for their size. Avoid acorns with one or more of the following characteristics : a white patina, green or yellow coloring, caps still attached, holes (caused by the exit, not entrance, of a grub), or excessive dark or bright coloration. Sprouted acorns are perfectly acceptable. While there is a definite variance in bitterness between white oak group and red oak group acorns, the most important concern for collecting acorns is their freshness and quality. Size matters too – bigger acorns mean less work. For to be sure, there is much work ahead. First wash the acorns, then cover them with water – those that float are to be discarded.

The second step is shelling the acorns. I am completely convinced I have the best method for doing this. I heat up a cast iron pan with one layer of acorns until they are fairly warm and starting to discolor (from brown to an orange-brown). Then I remove the pan from the heat and crush each acorn the way I would a fat clove of garlic, with the base of my hand pushing down on the base of my knife pushing down on an acorn. The acorn will split naturally in two, and if you’ve steamed it enough in the cast iron pan the dark brown film (like the skin of an almond) around the acorn will come off with the shell. Discard or cut the bad bits off of any imperfect acorns such as those with small holes or black spots. Acorns can also be shelled after being briefly blanched in boiling water or even without any preparation, but I find mine to be the easiest and fastest method.

The third step is leaching the acorns. This is necessary to remove tannins from the acorns for both health and flavor considerations. There are hot and cold methods, we will cover the hot one here.

Fill your largest pot with water and bring to a boil. At the same time bring a smaller pot to a boil. I usually fill the second pot about halfway. Add your viable, peeled acorns (steps 1 and 2) to the second pot and boil until the water becomes quite dark (Euell Gibbons says “tea-colored” but think black tea). Drain the acorns. Do not wash the acorns or clean them with cold water, but you can let them sit between rounds of boiling. Put the drained acorns in the now empty second pot and add some boiling water from the large first pot. I try not to use a huge quantity of water for each round of this, maybe twice as much as the amount of acorns. Repeat this process until the acorns are a chocolate brown and have no bitterness in their taste. I usually find this takes around 3-5 changes of water for sweeter acorns and usually a few more for the bitterest ones. Generally speaking white oaks and live oaks are sweeter, red and black oaks more bitter.

Once the acorns are leached, you may chop or use whole in any way you would use nuts. Bear in mind, they contain less oil than tree nuts, so they will be somewhat drier and crumblier. You can also grind them to a meal (or flour, if you will) and mix with other meals or flours in baked goods (remembering that acorn meal will have no gluten). The whole or chopped nuts or flour can also be roasted or sun dried, the acorns will turn nearly black if one does this.

I encourage everyone who is interested in wild food to prepare acorns. It is hard work but absolutely worth it. While preparing them you may wish to consider the many generations of humanity for whom this was a necessary activity – acorns were a staple food long before cultivated rice and wheat. But most of all they taste great and have a flavor which has no real substitute.

Acorn Bread

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Acorn Bread

Perhaps the quintessential first dish to make using acorns, a simple acorn bread with a 50/50 ratio of acorn meal to white or wholemeal flour is a great way to really taste the flavor of the acorn meal. It doesn’t matter whether you use hot-leached or cold-leached acorn meal, just that it is very finely ground.

A light, moist, soft loaf with a very crispy almost cracker-y crust. If you’re feeling decadent you could turn it into a bread pudding, but I enjoy it as is, especially hot from the oven with just a dab of salted butter or jam made from wild berries. Hickory syrup and a touch of molasses really make the difference, both of those flavors combining well with the earthiness of acorns.

My method for hot-leaching acorns to obtain acorn meal is here.

Whisk together :

2 cups acorn meal
2 cups bread flour
4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Whisk together :

1 egg or egg substitute
1/2 cup milk, whey or rice milk
1 tbs molasses
1/4 cup hickory or maple syrup
3 tbs olive oil

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, stir to combine, and pour into a greased loaf pan or cast iron skillet. Place the pan in a 400° oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Tree Crab Cakes

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About the name :

The Hericium genus of edible fungi grow wild throughout much of the Eastern US. And while they aren’t common, they are unique. When fresh they have a tender, fleshy texture and delicate flavor strongly reminiscent of shellfish, particularly crab. They grow on living trees or dead wood, hence “Tree Crab.”

The recipe itself is one I plundered from my first real (some would say only real) restaurant job. You know, I’m not even sure it was a real job, come to think of it. But the recipe is very very real, at least in the sense that it exists as a handwritten list of ingredients that I ran off with when we closed. In the lovely angular script of my kitchen manager Amy (although it isn’t her recipe either) :

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I like that egg has an egg stain next to it. Anyway, for about fifteen years I’ve carried these old sheets of notebook paper with all the lists of ingredients for the recipes of Chez Nameless around but the one that I have made time and time again is this one, never exactly the same as we made it then but never very different. Having acknowledged my theft, here is the recipe.

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Combine in a mixing bowl :

12 oz. Hericium genus fungus (Lions Mane, Bears Head Tooth, etc), shredded into small pieces by hand, sliced thin if too firm for shredding

4 oz red onion, minced

2 oz shallot, minced

handful of chopped shiso

handful of chopped cilantro

1-2 tbs of tuong ot toi 

2-4 tbs of thai sweet chili sauce

*There is no egg. Don’t add any eggs.

**Adjust the amount of sauces used based on your own taste and the moisture content (see below).

Combine these ingredients and mix them together very well, preferably with your hands.

Add enough breadcrumbs to dry out the mixture slightly. The amount will vary depending on how much liquid is in the fungus. You will have to use your own judgement, but the normal range is between a half cup and full cup.

Shape the mix into patties of whatever size you prefer, firming them with your hands. If the mix is too watery, add more crumbs. If it is too dry add more sauce.

Roll or coat the patties in panko or more breadcrumbs and prepare hot oil for frying. I usually use just a small amount of oil in the pan, rather than deep frying but either will work. Fry until golden brown.

At this point you may freeze the cakes for later serving. You may also finish them by placing them in a very hot oven or under a broiler. Finish them at very high heat and very quickly. In this way the moisture content and crispiness will both be ideal.

Oh and of course, this also works with “real” crab.

Enjoy.

Watermelon & Juniper Sorbetto

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Combine in a blender or food processor :

4 cups fresh melon, chopped into pieces and with as many seeds as possible removed

2-3 tbs of juniper berries

4 tbs sugar

1/2 cup water

Puree until well combined.

Strain through cheesecloth or a wire mesh sieve into an ice cream maker.

Use ice cream maker to freeze sorbet according to manufacturers directions.

Add midway if desired :

1 egg white

This makes a more traditional sorbetto and a creamier texture, but is not necessary.

Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce)

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Combine in a food processor :

24 oz cherry bomb or fresno chile peppers, or other medium-hot to hot red chiles, destemmed but not deseeded and cut into quarters, halves or chunks as appropriate

1 head garlic, crushed and peeled

a pinch or two of salt

Pulse until chopped into smaller fragments, stopping to scrape and redistribute if necessary.

Add :

2, 4 or 6 tbs sugar (see note)

1/4 or 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

Process until chile and garlic and finely enough diced. Place in medium to large saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate and serve with EVERYTHING.

Note on proportions :

It’s best to play with the proportions of this recipe to suit you or your fellow diners taste. In particular sugar and vinegar should be tweaked : 6 tbs sugar makes something close to what is purchased in asian markets as shelf-stable tuong ot toi, 2 tbs is more like what would be served on the table at a restaurant. The larger amount of vinegar will make it take longer to cook and reduce but easier to process everything initially. And naturally it will make it more sour. I usually use 2 or 4 tbs of sugar and 1/2 cup of vinegar.

Ideally, you should play with all the other proportions as well, and even what kind and color of chiles to use, to suit yourself and your diners, and the dictates of the moment. I often replace 4 oz or so of the red chiles with green chiles, it ruins the impressive red majesty of the original, but it reminds me of when I used to buy it in the Asian market, where there is usually a bit of green since the peppers are pulled in big farms and often still have a hint of green. I used to think it was scallions 😐

This is undoubtedly the world’s finest table sauce. There is simply nothing finer in any cuisine that goes so well with so many cuisines and especially with so many simple foods. Raw and cooked vegetables, eggs, noodles, soups, sandwiches (unbelievable on banh mi), salads, tofu, pork, fish, and really pretty much anything is enlivened with a little dab of this. Butter, noodles and a spoonful of this with maybe a little cilantro would probably be my final meal if I had to have one. But I won’t! I will live forever, making millions and millions of batches of tuong ot toi! At least, that’s the plan.

Milkweed Stew

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This is a very simple vegetable stew, perfect for a summer evening when a hot meal that isn’t too heavy or complicated is needed. The milkweed can be either added to the stew as is (perhaps chopped into pieces if the pods are large) or briefly blanched first. The flavor of the stew will be perhaps a bit better if the pods are added without preparation, but the cooking time will be longer. Foraging books abound with instructions to boil milkweed in multiple changes of water for lengthy periods of time but all of that is really unnecessary, and usually serves only to ruin the taste and nutritional value of this delicious, wholesome vegetable.

When selecting milkweed pods for this dish, avoid any longer than 2 inches or so and any ones that have particularly tough exteriors. The pods should be firm but not rubbery. Avoid pods that are soft or have obvious slits or discolorations, as the material inside will be dark and bitter.

In a wide, deep sauté pan heat :

2 tbs vegetable oil or other neutral oil or fat

Add and cook until tender and slightly browned :

5 oz onions, diced

Add and cook for one minute or so :

2 tbs field garlic or minced garlic

Add and cook until tender :

2 oz celery, sliced thin

Add and cook until tender :

5 oz bell or sweet pepper, diced

1 chile, diced fine

Add and cook until juices are released :

5 oz tomato, chopped

Add :

1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted

1 tsp wild parsnip seeds, toasted (optional)

5 oz milkweed pods (see introductory note)

Cook for several minutes, then deglaze with :

1-2 tbs sherry, shao xing wine or cooking wine

Add :

1 cup stock or water

3/4 cup sweetcorn, raw or fermented

Lower heat to simmer and cook until done. Add thickeners or more liquid as necessary.

Garnish with a bit of chopped fresh herb such as parsley, cilantro, basil or monarda.

This is an extremely simple recipe, and benefits from the addition of a dash of this or that as befits your taste and pantry. A little bit of nice olive oil added to the finished dish is quite lovely, as is a little soy or other seasoning sauce drizzled in as the stew thickens. The delicate flavor of milkweed pods (think okra combined with green beans) is best enjoyed in such simple preparations, but can be ruined if too many seasonings are added, so taste before tampering!

Elderberry Syrup

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In a medium saucepan, combine :

1/2 lb. elderberries (washed, still attached to stalks)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

Bring to a boil, crushing berries and sugar together. When the berries are smashed and the liquid begins to boil, cut heat, removing from burner if necessary.

Add :

2 1/2 cups sugar

4 cups water

Bring to a boil, then cut to a simmer.

Simmer for a half hour, then remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for eight hours or overnight.

Crush again and strain all liquids through a cheesecloth into a syrup bottle.

Keep refrigerated.

Use as a base for sodas, dessert sauces, granitas, etc. Excellent combined in preparations with strong spices and herbs such as spicebush, black cardamom, ginger, wild ginger, shiso, monarda, cinnamon, star anise. Extremely refreshing on its own, with an almost perfect balance of sweet and tart.

Pickled Blueberries

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Fill a quart jar nearly to the top with freshly-picked, clean blueberries, wild or grown.

In a small saucepan, combine and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved :

1 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1 tbs. sugar or honey

1 tsp salt

Add one or more of the following :

1 sliced chile

Several crushed whole cloves of garlic or 2 tbs bulbils of field garlic

Lemon or orange peel or chunk of preserved lemon

1 tsp whole peppercorns, white or black or sichuan

1 small cinnamon stick or 1 tsp vietnamese cinnamon

several cloves or blades of mace

you get the idea.

Pour mixture over the blueberries, allow to cool, the refrigerate for 24 hours, open and serve either chilled or at room temperature. Great as a snack or garnish.

Chanterelle Sauce No. 1

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This is a simple sauce that tastes creamy and luxurious without using heavy cream – highlighting the natural flavor of some of the seasons’ finest wild mushrooms. You can use any kind of chanterelle or craterellus mushroom for this, but the sauce is at its’ best and most pleasing to the eye when a mix of different, colorful mushrooms is used. In the variation pictured above we used black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) and golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius).

As always, prepare everything in advance and have handy when making a sauce so you aren’t rushing around chopping shallots or looking for sour cream when the time comes to add it.

Melt / heat in a sautee pan:

2 tbs butter or oil

Add :

1 tbs. whole field garlic bulbils or conventional or field garlic cloves, minced

2-3 oz shallots, finely chopped

A grating of fresh nutmeg

Sautee the onions and garlic until softened, then add:

1/2 lb. of chanterelle or craterellus mushrooms, chopped into similar-sized pieces

NB >>> Different mushrooms will cook at different times, so if using a mix, they should be added one at a time. I usually find that golden chanterelles take the longest and horn of plenty the shortest.

Cook the mushrooms until they are softened but not yet completely tender, and add:

1 tbs. potato starch (corn starch may also be used. Flour can be used but must be well-cooked to avoid leaving an off taste)

Stir and sautee for 1-2 minutes, then add, slowly, mixing to incorporate :

1 1/2 cups hot whole milk, preferably fresh and of very good quality

Cook while slowly adding the milk for fifteen minutes or so. Add seasoning to taste while the sauce reduces a bit. If it becomes to thick and/or is cooking too fast add 1-2 stock cubes or ice cubes and reduce heat if needed. Season with :

Freshly ground black or white pepper to taste (optional)

Salt to taste (not optional)

Fresh or good quality dried thyme to taste

Once the sauce is close to the desired consistency and the mushrooms are mouth-tender, remove the sauce from the heat. If it is very hot, allow to cool a bit before adding :

1/2 cup sour cream, preferably at room temperature

Snipped chives if desired

Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve immediately.

If not eating immediately, allow the sauce to cool on its’ own without adding the sour cream. When serving, reheat and then stir the sour cream in, with chives if desired.

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Craterellus cornucopioides being prepared

There are of course any number of herbs or other seasonings that could be added to this sauce, but in this its’ simplest form I’ve used only the classic mushroom herb thyme and a bit of nutmeg and optionally pepper. Fresh parsley or celery leaf in small, finely-chopped quantities are a nice addition for a bit more green color. One could add a stronger herb as well such as oregano or tarragon if it seems appropriate for the dish it is to be used with.

The temptation with a sauce this rich is to toss pasta in it, and revel in the sumptuous texture combination of chanterelle and toothsome starch. And I won’t deny that it is a fine sauce to serve with a starch – heavenly with freshly-made egg noodles, homemade biscuits (a nice vegetarian replacement for Southern-style sausage gravy), even simple buttered rice. Some more interesting uses? A cream sauce for greens or a green vegetable, a base sauce for a pizza, on top of heated stuffed vegetables or grape leaves, especially ones filled with rice or grains, on top of a hearty bowl of cooked, mashed lentils or pulses, and a dynamite partner with polenta. I have even eaten this on top of some scrambled eggs with a bit of cheese and green herbs and had no complaints about the experience.

Makes a little over 2 cups of sauce.