A Broth of Fallen Leaves

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A typical basket of fallen leaves and pine needles, circa late October

This is that rare preparation that sounds as poetic as it tastes. But between making a success out of it and a shambles there lies a very thin line.

If you just grab a bunch of random leaves from the forest floor and bring to the boil (Latin bullire, hence “bouillon”), you will certainly achieve some kind of a broth from them. But its flavor will be questionable. At best, it’s a roll of the dice that might make you lucky. At worst, it’s your stomach that is tumbling.

Leaves fall at different times. They contain many different flavors and elements that age and decay in different fashion. They aren’t all “edible,” but the ones you use should all be non-toxic. A handful of trees bear leaves that should be avoided (eucalyptus, yew, certain fabaceae family trees). Every leaf that makes its way into my broths is non-toxic, and every tree type mentioned below is broadly “edible” in my area. As always, your local species are the ones you need to look into.

I eat a lot of tree leaves. They don’t remain edible for very long, usually only a couple of weeks, but within that time frame things like beech and basswood leaves have become some of my favorite spring greens. The leaves of fruiting and non-fruiting Morus alba (White Mulberry) are another favorite, a sweet leaf more mild than cultivated lettuce once briefly boiled. Maple leaves can be or become bitter quite quickly but in their earliest incarnations most are mild enough to make a tempura or mead from, or boil and add to a salad.

I also use a lot of tree leaves. Oak leaves in particular, both for their tannins to stiffen a pickle a la grape leaves, and for their bite in brews and forest infusions. Those maple leaves that have become sharper are fine in small quantities in these same preparations. Dried black walnut (and by extension hickory and walnut leaves) are a traditional bittering agent, adding astringency and woody richness to alcohol, honey, or vinegar. As they age, edible or non-toxic tree leaves change in character, appearance and flavor. These intriguing elements can be used in the kitchen, but only once you have ascertained which leaves are safe to experiment with.

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Its more complicated than throwing a bunch of leaves in some water and boiling, but not that much more.

There is no substitution here, not for ingredients and not for experience. Learn which trees grow locally, and learn which ones are generally safe for food use. Taste and use the ones that are safe. Experiment with them – whether it be in a salad or a vinegar. Roll the dice, but set your own limits. Nibble before you bite, and bite before you swallow.

To make a broth of fallen leaves, you should worry more about proportion than volume. A good place to start is a few handfuls in the bottom of your stock pot, maybe about 6-8 cups of loosely packed leaves to about 4 quarts of water. Start small at first–what do you have to lose? My first broths of fallen leaves were a handful in a saucepan, filled with water and just simmered until flavorful, then drained and immediately used in miso soup, or a noodle dish, or mushroom soup. Or simply drunk, almost like tea, or better yet bone broth, with perhaps a pinch or three of sea or seasoned salt.

While I approached it very tentatively at first, you can be a bit bolder. I would suggest that for starters you can make a stock pot full of this broth, as long as you follow three simple rules :

1) pick clean, newly fallen leaves or tug leaves which are nearly ready to fall from the lower branches. its more poetic to gather the cast off leaves, but rule no.2 is more important than poetry – generally the milder leaves (mulberry, beech, linden) are later to fall. Carefully wash and sort your leaves, and strain the finished broth through a clean dishtowel or cheesecloth to filter out any noise, including the resinous issue which exudes from all the conifers.

2) use the proportions listed below to keep your broth within the bounds of reason. Feel free to deviate from them, but at your own peril. Adding a few more oak leaves can mean a wide shift in the dryness, aroma, and taste of your final broth.

OF THESE LEAVES, USE

50 % mild, edible leaves (beech, linden/basswood, white mulberry, birch, sumac, some viburnums)

10 % bitter, astringent or strong leaves (oak, hickory, black walnut)

20 % aromatic, seasoning leaves (spicebush, sassafras, maple)

20 % coniferous needles or branches (pine, spruce, hemlock, fir)

3) taste your broth, and pull it when it is to your liking. Don’t allow the leaves to sit and linger once you’ve achieved the flavor you want, or it will become much more woody and bitter. Of course, this can work too–and is a great basis for beers or vinegars. But we will discuss that elsewhere. Before all else, a broth should be sippable, soothing, nourishing. Something you can reach for when at your worst. Remember, this is a base. It should be flavorful but restrained enough to be a background for other flavors.

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A broth of fallen leaves that is on its way to becoming a tea, with sweet birch bark and a larger handful of white pine needles.

It occurs to me that this is essentially a very open-ended recipe, not only in terms of how it is described here, but in how it could mutate or evolve. I have made over the years many things that exist somewhere in-between this “broth” and a wild tea, concoctions which have been not only cooking medium or tea but also brine for marinating or pickling other foods, and so on. To cut off at the pass the most obvious notions, I would suggest that any wild tea plant could be added, along with such as rosehips, wild spices such as pushki, juniper or spicebush, spicebush or sweet birch bark, rubus spp. leaves, goldenrod flowers, bayberry leaf, und so weiter.

As for using this, I have found broth of fallen leaves to be very versatile, I have made everything from strong, pho-style noodle dishes to delicate sipping, restorative broths with just a few dried mushrooms or seaweed strips, to hearty minestrone and creamy turkey stews with it. In the end, the flavor of the final product will dictate its use best. This isn’t a broth patched from scraps, but a good reason to go out in the woods in itself. And let the results of your careful experimentation be your guide.

 

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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

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.

 

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…

Hickory Syrup

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Hickory syrup is golden, smoky, beautiful and has legs for days…

The Hickory is a characteristically American tree, an irreplaceable member of the great deciduous forests of our continent. It is most known to those with only a casual interest in native trees as the genus which contains the Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), but there are a number of species of Hickory tree which are found, not commonly, but regularly in the woodlands of the Eastern half of the US. The mature stage of eastern hardwood forests is commonly referred to as the “oak-hickory forest,” underscoring the importance of this native tree.

Wild food gatherers will of course be familiar with the Hickory in the form of its edible nutmeats, gathered in the autumn as the nuts drop in their (usually) smooth green and segmented outer shells. While all hickory nuts are technically edible, not all species conform to what we would consider palatable. Within that window of taste, there are also variances from tree to tree. One of the most widely distributed and appreciated for both beauty and flavor is the Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata.

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Mature shagbark hickory with its characteristic “shaggy” strips of exfoliated bark.

In addition to providing delicious nuts, the shagbark hickory has a bark which can be used to add flavor to smoked or grilled foods, in the fashion of other hardwoods such as apple, cherry and mesquite. Excitingly for our purposes here, it can also be used more directly, in the form of a tea which can be turned into a sugar syrup. This product of the hickory is often likened to maple syrup, but it is different in some fundamental ways. First of all, maple syrup is a natural product which is extracted from the natural sap of trees by a somewhat laborious process. Second of all, maple syrup tastes quite different from hickory syrup. So perhaps not such a great comparison. In terms of use, however, there is a certain similarity – hickory syrup can be substituted for maple syrup in both direct use and in recipes, with of course the knowledge that the flavor will be that of hickory, not maple.

I quite like maple syrup. I don’t wish to demean it in any way. But, to me, hickory syrup tastes better, and is far more interesting culinarily. Those who find maple syrup good but somewhat cloying may agree with me. Hickory syrup has an incomparable smoky, woodsy flavor that is a more complex than maple syrup, something which to my tastes makes it more useful for both sweet and savory recipes. Maple syrup is delicious, but hickory syrup is adventurous. The only flaw that I see is that the manufacture of hickory syrup relies on an outside product to sweeten it, in most cases cane sugar, which is of course an industrialized, tropical plant and carries with it a cost in terms of ecological impact. In its defense I will say that making hickory syrup is one of the best ways to use sugar, a product I generally avoid. And while the amount required is no more or less than one would use to make a simple syrup, the product is one that carries a huge amount of flavor in even small doses, especially when used in cooking and baked goods. Maple syrup is also quite expensive in terms of money if one buys it, and time if one makes it. Making hickory syrup is quick, simple and costs nothing more than the price of whatever amount of sugar one uses.

To produce hickory syrup, one first needs to locate a shagbark hickory tree. The shagbark is quite distinctive, having naturally exfoliated bark which hangs “shaggily” off the tree in large, easy to remove pieces (pictured above). This bark can be collected in any season, but I usually gather it in winter when other wild food options are reduced. First, I scout around the base of the trees I find to see if any strips have fallen to the ground. There is no direct harm done to the tree by removing its bark, but one does run the risk of exposing the inner bark to attack from insects (another reason to collect in winter). It also reduces the natural beauty of the tree, so I try always to take only a few strips from each tree and minimize the impact both ecologically and visually. It does not require a great quantity of bark to make a rich syrup, so I would recommend starting with just a few ounces and seeing how well you like it.

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Toasted shagbark hickory bark, ready to be made into a syrup.

To prepare the syrup, you will want first to toast the bark in a low oven. This works on the same principle as dry-roasting spices before using them in a curry. The heat brings out flavors and aromas in the bark which would be less intense if the bark were not treated in this way. I have made hickory syrup without toasting it first, and it is perfectly serviceable, but not as deep in flavor. To toast the bark, place on a baking sheet in a low (under 200°) oven for 1-2 hours or a slightly hotter one (325°) for a half-hour or so. When I use the higher heat method I turn the bark halfway through. I’m not entirely sure that this is necessary, I am likely just being fussy.

Once the bark is toasted, allow it to cool and then prepare a tea from it. I generally use a ratio of 4-5 ounces of dry bark to 6 cups of water. Bring close to a boil, then cut the heat and allow the bark and water to simmer until the amount of water (now dark and flavorful) has been reduced to a third of its original amount. The amount of time this takes will vary greatly, so the best way to proceed is simply by measuring, reducing, and measuring again until one gets the liquid down to a third. I have prepared this tea with amounts as small as 2 oz of bark and as high as 1.5 lbs and found the general ratios to be effective in both small and large recipes. To make a practical, easily bottle-able amount the most usual proportion that I prepare is 8-10 oz. of bark to 12 cups of water, reduced down to 4 cups of tea. Avoid boiling, which will result in bitterness. It is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps beneficial) to allow the mixture to sit until cool, for several hours, or even overnight before straining the bark. When done, do not discard the strained bark. Instead, save it and use for additional flavor when grilling or smoking foods with hardwoods.

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Hickory syrup being reduced. The color will vary from pale gold to reddish amber.

Next, you will want to add sugar. I prefer to use a proportion of 1 : 1 to make the basic hickory syrup, and then reduce it if I want a more concentrated and thick product (I usually refer to this as hickory glaze).

To make a hickory simple syrup, rather than a glaze, all one has to do is combine the sugar and tea over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. It is best to avoid stirring this mixture as it begins to get warm, as this will cause crystallization. This syrup will not be as thick as maple syrup, but is perfectly fine for most applications and is actually much better if you are going to add hickory syrup to drinks or use it in a recipe that will be cooked for any length of time.

Reducing the syrup to a glaze is more useful if it will be used to make salad dressings, added to dishes as a finishing touch, or poured over pancakes like maple syrup. I tend to reduce the syrup by anywhere from a quarter to a third, so going from a cup of hickory syrup to 2/3-3/4 cup of hickory glaze. I have found that reducing it much further results in a product that solidifies at room temperature. There is nothing much wrong with this thick syrup, it just requires heating in a water bath to become fluid again.

As to the uses of either hickory syrup or glaze, the only limit is one’s imagination. Of course it works wonderfully as a substitute for maple syrup, but don’t let your experimentation end there. Hickory syrup makes an amazing addition to various mixed drinks and cocktails, alcoholic or not, and is an ideal sweetener for lemonade or sumac-ade, adding its characteristic smoky flavor to the mix. It’s fantastic when substituted for honey or maple syrup in baked goods, makes a great base for vinaigrettes and yogurt dressings, and is inspiring drizzled on homemade ice creams and frozen yogurts. The combination of smokiness and sweetness means it pairs excellently with meats, especially pork sausages, bacon, and fried chicken. My favorite way to use it may be as a finishing touch to bitter greens, of which I eat quite a lot. And it almost goes without saying that it is an awesome pancake syrup.

It’s extraordinarily easy to identify shagbark hickory and make this syrup – there is an added bonus to collecting this bark in the winter, as well. Identifying hickory trees now means one can be there in the fall, when their nuts are available, for the shagbark hickory is one of the consummate wild foods, under appreciated in our area where they are so naturally abundant.

 

 

Winter Teas from Pine Family Trees

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The Pine family (Pinaceae) is likely one of the first groups of plants that our ancestors recognized as broadly edible and safe. As human beings made their way further into colder climates, it would have become essential for life. Pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, arbor vitae – all rated quite highly to pre-Industrial Europeans and Native Americans. Not simply for their timber, but their edible and medicinal uses as well. Above all else, the Pinaceae represented a crucial and easily available source of Vitamin C during the winter, sorely needed when diets were strictly seasonal.

While we now have a wide access to various supplements and pills to ensure that we don’t succumb to scurvy, some of the products made from the Pine family are still quite interesting from a perspective of taste and culinary curiosity. In particular, simple teas made from the needles of most conifers are an extremely healthy alternative to tannin-rich coffees and teas. In addition, those products are generally made quite far away. Your nearest Pine family member is probably in your front yard. They are available year-round, but I usually enjoy them most in the winter, both for their warming quality and their strong, seasonal flavor.

In the spring, the newly-emerging needles of conifers are soft, and can be eaten raw. Many wild food gatherers consider them a delicacy, and some only eat them raw, as a trailside nibble. The needles are gathered together at first in a tight cluster, usually referred to as a “tip,” as in “spruce tips.” While a tea can certainly be made from them, they are much finer used in prepared salts and sugars, infused in vinegars or alcohol, or added to other prepared dishes. As the seasons progress, these tips unfurl and harden off and become the years fresh set of needles. These are the needles you will collect for tea, and they are available any season of the year. Theoretically, one could use older growth just as well but the most recent sets will have more of the energy of the tree, and therefore more flavor.

All Pine family needle teas are prepared in the same fashion. Clip the freshest growth from the tree (see pictures and descriptions below for each genus), then wash the needles. Cover the needles with water (they should all be floating) and bring to just shy of a boil. If possible, do not allow the water to actually boil, as this will result in loss of Vitamin C. Instead, maintain a simmer and a careful eye on the pot, and allow it to simmer until you have enough depth of flavor. In practice, the amount of time this takes will vary radically, depending on volume involved, but the same procedure applies whether you’re making a cupful or a gallon. You will simply have to allow your taste to tell you when you have made a good tea. I prefer to simmer mine until its a little shy of what I’m looking for, then allow it to sit and steep until it cools, overnight if possible. I’m convinced this provides not only a fuller flavor than straining the needles immediately, but also a rounder and more complex one.

As to the flavor? Well, Pine family products are strong. Spruce in particular is a very robust flavor. Your appreciation of each of them may vary, and indeed you may despise them all. What they probably won’t remind you of is cleaning products, a common fear. Here are three that I particularly enjoy, two of which are made from native trees in my area, the other from a very popular import.

Eastern White Pine Tea (Pinus strobus)

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Needles of the Eastern White Pine, with new growth visible at the bottom.

To collect pine needles, it’s best to look for a small colony of trees, and select from the younger members. I often select the needles from small trees growing along the perimeter of a hiking trail, since those trees are generally slated to be trimmed by the park workers anyway. Pull the freshest growth at the ends of the branches, concentrating on the lowest branches. You won’t need many pine needles to try a tea – a half-pound of them makes almost two gallons of tea.

This is my go-to Pine family tea, the most broadly palatable and subtle in flavor, and drinkable cold as well as warm. Some will likely disagree, indeed I have often read of people finding Pine products stronger than those of Spruce. Perhaps they use another Pine – I have always used Pinus strobus, since it is locally abundant. In addition, the needles are softer than other Pines, which always suggests to me greater palatability. In any case, tea from Eastern White Pine is citrusy, warming and somewhat mellow at first, but quickly following is a spicy and slightly resinous aftertaste. It’s “strong” in flavor to many, pleasant to some, and certainly beneficial to all. Pine tea has the most flexibility of these three in terms of being used for other applications, such as making a syrup, vinegar, or kombucha. It combines well with sugar, which tends to accentuate the citrusy taste, and makes a fine granita or sorbet.

Norway Spruce Tea (Picea abies)

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Freshest growth of Norway Spruce is generally more reddish, the older more grey.

To collect spruce needles, look for the most outward-branching lengths on the lower part of the tree and bend them backwards, then tear from the older growth. The newer growth on Norway Spruce will be more reddish and less grey.

This is not a native tree, but one widely planted in my area and in many other parts of the world. The original Christmas tree, the Norway produces strong, citrusy tips in the spring. They are large, plentiful and a natural choice for infusion or making spruce sugar. The tips are the true delicacy, but the tea is tasty as well. Strong, spicy and buttery, very rich in color and flavor. The woodsy, resiny taste is more pronounced in spruce tea than in pine, and unlike pine I don’t find it palatable cold. Spruce is the more natural partner to savory cooking applications, and has been used in sauces and glazes for meats, strong fish and hearty winter vegetables.

Eastern Hemlock Tea (Tsuga canadensis)

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Fresh growth of Eastern Hemlock – the new growth will softer and less rigid.

To collect Hemlock needles, look for fresh growth at the tips of lower branches, from juvenile trees if possible. Bend them back to tear, in the same manner as spruce. If you tear downwards you will just end up with a shower of needles.

Eastern hemlock is the only one of the three species mentioned here that comes with not one, but several caveats. The first is not to confuse it with the highly poisonous, herbaceous plant in the carrot family that is also called Hemlock. Europeans who first encountered the tree in the Americas thought the freshly crushed needles smelled like that plant. The second is not to confuse it with the highly poisonous Yew, which it does somewhat look like (pictured below). In the Eastern US, yew is very rarely grown as a tree, but very often grown as a shrub. Hemlock has cones, usually always persistent, Yew does not. If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you have a Tsuga canadensis, then by all means do not collect it. The third (and thankfully, final) caveat is that T. canadensis in our area is often parasitized by the wooly adelgid, a kind of aphid. Adelgid damage on hemlocks is usually easy to spot – the trees generally look unhealthy and the branches will be dotted with white egg sacs, which are soft and look a bit like cotton or spit has gotten on the plant. While I’m not sure that one would be made sick by adelgid-infested hemlock tea, I wouldn’t care to find out.

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This is a yew / don’t confuse the two!

In taste, the hemlock tea is somewhere inbetween spruce and pine, perhaps more complex and nuanced than either. As a consequence, I enjoy it the most as a pure drinking tea, usually with just a dab of sugar to mellow it out. It has the spicy and smoky notes of spruce, but isnt quite as bitter. I have yet to experiment much with hemlock tea beyond drinking it, but I can imagine it has other culinary uses. The tips in spring are the tastiest of all the Pine family I have tried, although they do tend to be on the small side.

All three of these teas are fine, healthy drinks, which can be made from a locally abundant resource and which have minimal impact on our environment. They represent a forgotten flavor, one which we have learned to dislike or distrust in our post-Industrial diet. Many other members of the Pine family can be used in the same fashion, and indeed all of these trees produce other useful and edible products, some of which we will hopefully discuss as winter turns into spring.

Note :  

To make a greater quantity of any of these needle teas I usually follow a basic ratio of 1 oz of dry needles to 1 quart of water.

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 !!!

Is Foraging Ethical?

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Whether or not foraging is legal varies immensely and is another matter entirely. Certainly, if we think of ourselves as feeling individuals the first question to ask is this one : is it even right?

If I’m no authority in foraging or cooking or gardening than I’m certainly no authority on morality. But I feel everyone who would venture to forage needs to answer this particular question for themselves. In the hopes that it helps people feel comfortable about coming to their own conclusions, I will describe what my answer is, and how I came to it.

There is an old foraging tradition that every writer on the subject usually rolls out. The tradition is one that many of the Native American tribes–the original and greatest North American foragers–utilized when searching for medicinal plants. They would go out in search of a particular plant. When they found the first specimen of the plant they were searching for, they would bury a piece of tobacco beneath it. Then they would meditate on the plant, its’ characteristics and virtues and then go out in search of others.

It is doubtful to me that this applied when the tribes were stocking up on food plants. This is the kind of ritual that only becomes necessary when dealing with the world of the unseen. But in our peculiar situation today as modern foragers, it is one that we would do well to apply to all plants. Especially if one is “finding” a plant for the first time. We can probably dispense with the burial of tobacco at the base of the plant. What we cannot do without is the meditation. This is a clear code : serious study of the plant and its attributes. Attention to the details of its structure and growth. And meditation on the essential “thatness” of the plant in question.

Once one has performed this little ritual and securely identified a plant, then it is time to look around. Is there a community of this plant? Is it large or tiny? Do we now realize that we have seen this plant a million times in a million places? Or is it something uncommon, even rare?

There is no replacement for understanding the size of a community of wild plants before beginning to eliminate them. There is no excuse for not researching a particular plant and finding out its’ viability in your area before culling the herd.

The first thing, though, is to understand the plant. More often than not, a new plant suddenly becomes a familiar friend to me. I remember all the times I saw it and it was just one of “the weeds in the field.” If this doesn’t happen, if you know what something is and don’t immediately know its’ level of abundance in your environment, than it’s time to do more research.

Many of the plants we look for when foraging (and the vast majority of the ones I will be talking about on this site) are abundant, often invasive, sometimes actually serious environmental threats. Many others are often ignored, even by most birds and wildlife. Some others (such as milkweed) represent particular ecological concerns, which must be addressed in very specific ways. A careful study of each plant you care to collect should be made in turn.

The very question of whether or not it is “right” to take things that don’t “belong” to you is one I take seriously. I admit to being made mildly uncomfortable by things like fallen fruit maps and some of the wild food maps. The idea of mapping plant communities I am solidly behind, but it shouldn’t be put forth as “free shit.” Especially when said free shit grows in somebody’s yard. I think I would be pretty damn annoyed if I planted a bunch of citrus trees (which I absolutely would do if I lived in a tropical location) and went out one day to find the ones overhanging the walls crawling with hippies snatching up my pomelos. If they’d only asked I would have shared. That I am solidly behind. Share, ask, talk to your neighbors when you see their apples or chestnuts rotting on their lawn. They might be made glad simply not to have to run over the things with a lawnmower.

But what about the woods? What about the parks? What about the abandoned field down the road? Is it right to take things from there?

This really depends on the nature of the space. No one should be foraging anything from a nature preserve or wildlife preserve. Old abandoned fields? Preserved open spaces? State parks? When it comes to those spaces the rule of abundance applies (as well, of course, as your local and state laws)–understand your ingredient before you harvest it. Find a large community. Make sure it isn’t critical to the local wildlife (this is usually an easier thing to ascertain than it might immediately seem). It goes without saying you wouldn’t be looking for something that was threatened or endangered in your area in the first place.

If you feel you’re not creating a negative impact on the environment, harvest a small amount if its new to you or a reasonable amount if it’s tried and true. There’s never any reason to go overboard. Take only what you know you will use. Take some to experiment with, as long as you will experiment. Make it important.

Assuming you enjoy the particular food in question, your role changes. Now, not only have you become a collector of wild food, you’ve become aware of what that plant or mushroom is doing in the area where you found it. Now you’ve on your way to becoming a minder, a custodian of that plant. If you love nettles, the last thing you’re going to do is let them disappear from your favorite areas. You’re going to encourage them. You’re going to make sure they thrive, so there will always be plenty. Plant lovers have been known to throw the seeds of their favorites in areas where the present populations seem threatened. Mushroom freaks spread spores, naturally.

The “big” question of whether foraging is ethical gradually became unravelled and finally nonsensical the more I studied foraging. The more we appreciate and use the abundance of wild food and medicine around us, the more we become strongly conscious of protecting it. There are surely exceptions, but a fairly widespread ethical streak runs through the heart of the foraging community. That’s really all that can be said–it is ethical if we all keep it that way.

If we really care for this world and these things that we make our food with, we can hardly do otherwise.