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.

How to Cook a Weed

2014-08-19_1408488617How to Cook a Weed takes its’ title from one of the greatest and most strange of American food books, the 1942 volume How to Cook a Wolf, written by the inimitable MFK Fisher. Released during the era of wartime rationing, it contains innumerable recipes, philosophies and approaches to living not only well but elegantly while stretching budgets and pinching pennies. The heart of this work touches something that has always been close to me : making the best of limited resources.

I won’t spend much more time singing the praises of Fisher and her masterpiece (believe me, there will be enough and plenty to come), but rather extrapolate on why that volume relates to our work here.

On the surface, this site is about foraging and using wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and medicines in the pursuit of a thrifty, healthy, green lifestyle without forsaking elegance or the pleasures of the table. This is the world of cucina povera–the cooking of the poor and the working classes. The best, most heart and soul-warming cooking there is. It is about making the most of what we have, and maybe realizing that we had more than we thought. There will be more attention paid here to the multiple uses and benefits of plants and mushrooms, and responsible and delicious ways to use and grow them, than botany lessons or identification guides. There will always be some identification content but this site is not intended to cover that well-trodden ground. Many have already done it much better than I ever could.

On a deeper level, this site is about re-examining our use of the food resources we already have, and understanding our responsibility should we choose to use the additional wild produce provided by our environment. Our culture is one of waste and gross negligence. I won’t be spending much time harping about that, again, other people have done it much better. What we are interested in here is solutions, ways in which we can rethink our environment from the woods we take a hike in to the yards and gardens of our own houses.

We have fought against the wildlings. We pay people to spray them with chemicals or pull them from the ground. Some of them might not be so bad. Some of them might even be a whole lot better than the denatured spinach in a plastic bag you plunk down your hard-earned cash for.

It’s time to let the wildlings in.

It’s time we learned how to cook a weed.

A Salad in the Snow


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

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

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

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

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

Mock Strawberry : A Disdained Common Edible


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.


Why Forage?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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