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.

Mugwort Soup, Potage or Cream

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This is a charming spring soup that can be prepared and served three different ways. It can be a rough country soup, a robust puree or a subtle and warming cream soup. Either way, it has a very unique flavor.

Blanch in boiling, salted water for one minute :

8 cups loosely packed mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) leaves, collected early to mid-spring

Drain, rinse immediately with cold water, then squeeze free of liquid and allow to dry.

Bring to a simmer :

8 cups chicken or strong (but not roasted) vegetable stock

2 fresh bay leaves (optional)

Add :

1 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed

1 tsp ground ginger or several thin slices of fresh ginger root

freshly ground white or black pepper to taste

4 oz celery, diced

Simmer for 5 minutes, then add :

12 oz potato, peeled (or not) and diced

Simmer for 20 minutes, then add :

The prepared mugwort, finely chopped

1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

The soup can be served as is. If that is your plan, you may wish to make the chopping of the celery and potato more uniform. If I am serving it like this I will keep it more rustic, like a rough country soup made quickly at the end of the working day. In fact, that is exactly what this is, a soup that takes only an hour or so in total and most of that spent simmering.

Alternatively, you can puree it. Pureeing will give you a complex bright olive green soup that is an intriguing first course for a spring meal. It’s equally great as just plain eating, but it has a mysterious flavor that might have your local foodies scratching their beards to describe. I like to think of it as a mix between parsley and sage, but not quite that… although handling the plant itself also makes me think of those two herbs.

Another option would be to puree, then add :

2 tbs butter

1/2 cup light cream

This makes for an even more elusive tasting soup, which can be garnished very nicely with bright violet flowers and bittercress pods, if you like, or forsythia blossoms and chives. A perfect soup from early to mid-spring.

Japanese Knotweed Simple Syrup

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Combine in a large saucepan :

8 oz. young japanese knotweed shoots, washed and roughly chopped

4 cups sugar

4 cups water

Bring to a boil, cut heat and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to sit until cool.

Makes a great base for knotweed margaritas, knotweed mojitos, etc. Excellent made simply into a knotweed soda or knotweed and tonic, very refreshing going into the warm days of late spring and early summer. Can be frozen into knotweed granitas or sorbettos, or combined with other fruits, ices or creams for sweet and sour treats.

While very often I like to use japanese knotweed as a savory vegetable, in simple syrup form it is an excellent addition to a sweet dish using fruit or cream. It has a sour but not puckery sour taste and sweetness from the knotweed as well as the sugar.

Pickled Burdock Root

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Place in the bottom of a glass pint jar :

1/2 oz turmeric root, peeled and sliced into a few long strips (optional, can use turmeric powder instead)

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

1 tsp whole yellow or black mustard seed

1/2 tsp whole pieces of vietnamese cinnamon

1 star anise, broken up

Fill with peeled burdock batons : cut batons to the height of the jar (allowing room for the spices and headspace) and about half as thick around as a pencil. Pack batons into jar until you cannot fit any more. Keep all the batons vertical. Trim any that stick out too far. This should require around 3/4 of a pound to a pound of burdock root.

Heat in a small saucepan until the sugar and salt are dissolved :

1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar

2 tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

When dissolved and the vinegar is still hot, pour into the filled jar. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate. Add more seasoned rice vinegar as needed to cover the batons.

This will be ready to eat when cool, but tastiest after at least 24 hours. It should last several weeks.

This can be made with either wild burdock root or the cultivated kind sometimes found in asian markets.

Winter Broth with Foraged Herbs

IMG_8172Take :

2 cups broth of your choice (this is a drinkable broth, so the stronger the better, and homemade of course)

Bring to heat in a small saucepan, then keep warm.

Add :

1/2 cup of mixed dried yarrow, wild basil, and sweetfern (roughly equal amounts)

pinch of dried mugwort leaves, crumbled

hefty pinch or two of dried mint of any kind, crumbled

Keep warm for 5-10 minutes, stirring once or twice. The point at which to take the next step is ideally when the dried herbs have all settled to the bottom of the saucepan.

Strain the broth from the herbs and serve.

Obviously this could be embellished in a million ways. The broth itself can be varied endlessly, depending on what you have in your pantry. It’s best made from a broth that’s deep and flavorful that you just made, perhaps even with something as basic as leftover vegetable scraps or chicken bones. The herbs can be from your garden or the store or the wilds, as long as they are dried this will make a nice flavorful broth from these proportions. I would also recommend not using more than one very bitter herb and not more than one very sweet herb. You want to use the more “culinary” herbs whether wild or domestic.

This could be used as the base of a soup, or served as I sometimes do simply with thick noodles and whatever condiments suit you. Primarily, though, this is a warm nourishing broth somewhere between a tea and a soup. Strong, complex and slightly bitter. While not explicitly medicinal it contains quite a few medicinal herbs. I’m not making any claims it’ll heal you, but it feel good.

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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