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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Forest Vinegar

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A late October scene in the Oak-Hickory Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forest Vinegar #3

Combine in a large jar :

2 oz toasted hickory bark, broken into pieces

1 oz pine needles, cut into pieces

1 oz spicebush twig, broken into pieces

1 oz hemlock branches, cut into pieces

1/2 oz dried oyster mushrooms

1 oz dried turkey tail or dryads saddle mushrooms

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

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

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

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

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

Winter ingredients for Forest Vinegar

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

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

Twigs (sassafras, spicebush, sweet birch)

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

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

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

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

Autumn ingredients for Forest Vinegar

Including most of the above, plus :

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

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

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

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

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

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