I had the great pleasure earlier this month to be interviewed by Marjorie Alexander for the incredible A Sustainable Mind podcast. Marjorie highlights people who are doing some truly inspiring work around issues of ecology, food waste, reusable energy, sustainable living and a myriad of other matters that all relate very closely to the issues that are close to my heart. I feel honored to be included amongst these folks who are contributing in a much more direct way to facing and resolving what is one of the great crises of our times.
It is my firm belief that living more simply and in greater harmony with nature is one of the most important and personal steps we can take in life. I urge you to think about the sustainability of your actions every time you collect wild food, to understand and acknowledge the relationships of the plants and wildlife around you and make decisions based on the needs of the community at large. Remember you are part of a much larger whole.
Too often in foraging literature, the focus is on what you can eat. I would like to encourage you to think more deeply about what you should eat.
If you’re a mushroom forager, Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus spp.) aren’t really the first fungi that spring to mind when thinking about drying the harvest. Indeed, the appearance of a slightly-too-far-gone specimen is something of a wild food cliché, sometimes accompanied by gags of the “no spring chicken” variety. Hilarious.
When they are fresh, it is their tenderness, as well as their flavor that encourages comparisons with poultry. Newly-emerged Laetiporus can be stir- or deep-fried to resemble chicken breast meat to a very credible degree. When they are still fresh but not quite as soft, I can still deep-fry them or use them in a slow-cooked dish with great results. They can also be used at this point, and perhaps a little further along, to make a great mushroom and herb powder that substitutes quite handily for powdered or cubed chicken bouillon.
First, the mushrooms should be dried in a dehydrator or by placing on wire racks in a place with a great deal of air movement and not much humidity. Once they are dried quite thoroughly they can be made into the BOTW or left in glass or plastic jars bags until ready to be ground. You will get the most optimal results by using the freshest mushrooms. If the fungus is really quite dry when you encounter it, it may already have lost too much of its flavor to be saved. If you prepare this, also try the test mentioned below and see if the flavor is adequate.
Combine in a food processor :
4 oz. dried chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus spp.)
2 tbs good-quality sea salt
1/4 cup dried wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) leaf
2 tbs dried sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) leaf
Pulse and then process until the product resembles semolina or corn meal.
To test the flavor, dissolve a small amount in a coffee mug full of hot water. If the flavor resembles chicken broth, you’re good to go.
As far as substitutions, you can use oregano in lieu of wild bergamot, and perhaps thyme or bay leaf in half the quantity listed to substitute for sweetfern. The flavor won’t be exactly the same, but should still serve amiably. You may wish to add more salt to more closely approximate dried chicken bouillon (which is extremely salty), but I usually find it more helpful to add salt to the dish directly, leaving this powder with just enough salt content to use as a broth base without making it too salty to add to dishes with abandon.
Texture of the ground powder is a consideration. I like to leave it a bit coarse, even allowing for the occasional lentil-sized nugget of Laetiporus to go unground. These larger bits can always be strained out of a broth later if I am looking for consommé-like refinement. More often I am using BOTW to add to meatballs or stews, or as a base for a ramen bowl. In these cases, small chunks of mushroom are a bonus rather than a hindrance. If you prefer it finer, simply grind until it is as fine as white flour.
To use as a soup base (it makes a lovely ramen powder), use 1 tbs to 2 cups of water. You can also use it to enhance a tired or weak broth by adding in the same ratio or slightly less. Be careful when adding to quickly-boiling water or broth, as the BOTW will make the hot liquid tend to foam vigorously if the heat is too high. The coarser the grind, the more likely you are to use it as a substitute for breadcrumbs in dishes with good success. In a heavily-breaded dish I may add a couple of tablespoons of BOTW for every cup of panko or breadcrumbs.
There are a myriad of other uses for BOTW, from adding to soups or stews to savory bread and pancake mixes, or adding to liquid sauces which will be strained in lieu of broth. The powder is relatively low in salt, so can be used as a lower-salt substitute or liason for dishes in which savory flavor is called for but salt must be kept to a minimum. BOTW can also substitute in any recipe that calls for ground dried mushrooms or mushroom powder. Bear in mind its’ salt content while using, and increase or decrease the salt content in the initial grind accordingly.
As I post more recipes using this handy kitchen helper I will post them here, for now :
An easy and delicious curry perfect for my nearly-wild curry mix, or any good homemade mix from wild or cultivated spices. I like to use this recipe to test out different combinations or variations on my wild or cultivated curry mixes, since it has a very simple set of ingredients that I almost always have on hand in the fall and winter. It’s the perfect test recipe to use for your own variations and experiments – the tartness of the tomatoes is softened by the sweetness of pumpkin (calabaza squash works great too), creating a perfect canvas for your spice combination!
This recipe works great on the stovetop, but can also be made in a slow-cooker. When I cook stews like this in a slow-cooker, I don’t simply add everything at once, but follow the basic procedure for stovetop cooking, adding the ingredients in stages to the slow-cooker set on high.
3/4 cup chopped canned tomatoes, strained of juice
Cook until onions are softened (10 minutes stovetop, 1 hour slow-cooker), then add:
1 lb. pumpkin or calabaza squash, cut into chunks
3/4 cup tomato juice or stock or nettle tea or water
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
Cover and cook until pumpkin is softened and liquid is somewhat reduced (45 minutes stovetop, 3-4 hours slow cooker)
This is excellent served over brown rice or lentil dal. I like to add a little chopped fresh cilantro, wild chervil, pushkin or other aromatic herb leaf. I also recommend combining with tart fermented vegetables or torn bitter leaves of wild or cultivated greens, such as dames rocket, dandelion, or escarole. To tart things up a bit, dried coconut flakes (unsweetened), crushed cashews, fermented chile sauces, grated lemon zest, and thinly sliced thai basil leaves are all good options. But the beauty of this recipe is it is so simple it can be accompanied with whatever is handy.
My apologies for the pun, but this is seriously the best way to make a Pine Needle tea, or for that matter a tea from any member of the Pine Family. After many long and frustratingly-erratic results making a pine tea on the stovetop, I began to use my slow-cooker to optimize results. This recipe relies on a larger quantity of needles that usually called for in pine tea recipes, which means you needn’t spend a lot of time cutting them into tiny pieces.
I STRONGLY recommend you use a crock pot or slow-cooker for this, if you have one. It more or less eliminates the chance of human error and more importantly it ensures you don’t lose an ounce of Vitamin C from the preparation. The flavor is deep, strong, and naturally sweet and can be not only drunk as a tea but used in secondary ferments of kombucha, turned into a syrup or sorbetto, or made into a brine in which to ferment vegetables. Since first using the slow-cooker for pine needle tea I now use it exclusively.
Place in slow cooker or stock pot :
200 g or 6 oz pine needles or fir or spruce or hemlock (Tsuga) branches (a small basketful)
3 L or 12 cups water
Set heat to High if using slow cooker. Bring to just short of a boil if using a stock pot. DO NOT BOIL.
Cover and maintain over as high a heat as possible without boiling for 4-8 hours in a slow cooker, 1-2 hours on stovetop. Shut off the slow cooker or remove the pot from the heat and allow the needles to rest in the tea for several hours or overnight. Strain the tea through a cheesecloth.
You may notice that if the mixture has rested overnight there is some small level of fermentation activity. This is ideal if adding the mixture to a kombucha secondary ferment, using as a pickling medium, or turning it into wine. Simply refrigerate the tea in order to keep fermentation from proceeding any further.
To make a pickling brine from this tea, simply add salt in a ratio of 50 g / Liter of finished tea, bring the mixture to a low heat and stir the salt until dissolved. To make a syrup, do the same but using a ratio of either 1:1 or 1/2:1 sugar to tea.
Curry powder always seemed to me a shabby thing to buy, it being so much more interesting to work with the whole spices themselves. I was spurred on by one of the first cookbooks I ever bought, a collection of recipes and information about spices published to sell the goods of a local spice importer. By understanding the spices individually, I was able to experiment with them culinarily, adding more or less to a mix depending on what I intended to do with them. Cardamom and cloves, for instance, could be added if I was using a mix to spice tea or desserts with. I would add more dried curry leaves and turmeric when making a mix for fish.
When I began to seriously incorporate more of the native and invasive wild spices of the world of wild food, it wasn’t a great stretch of the imagination to start to envision a masala or curry mix made entirely of foraged aromatics. And while an excellent entirely wild curry mix can be made, I usually find that I miss the cumin acutely. For day to day use and especially when replacing imported curry powder in traditional recipes, I have settled on a curry mix that is “nearly wild,” relying only mainly on foraged ingredients. It is also quite flexible, and may be adapted, altered or expanded by anyone who uses it, with many replacements or omissions possible. I believe it can be used in most temperate climates without too much trouble, assuming the availability of traditional imported spices to replace what cannot be foraged.
I have omitted any turmeric or substitute for turmeric in this recipe. To many, the taste and color of curries cannot be separated from that spice. Now that organic fresh turmeric is much more widely available, I use it in these curries, when it can be added at the time of cooking. You may wish to add that or the powdered form to affect a more traditional coloration. I sometimes add annatto seed instead for “local color,” but of course the color is a different one. Below is the recipe, see notes after the recipe for information on substitutions. I have deliberately split the list of ingredients into three groups.
1 ) essential bases
1 tbs. black mustard seed (wild or domestic)
1 tbs. cumin seed
1 tbs. wild parsnip or pushki or coriander seed
1-2 tsp wild carrot seed (optional, omit if using coriander seed)
2) optional aromatics
2-3 northern bayberry leaves or 1-2 bay leaves or 8 curry (kari) leaves
1-2 magnolia buds, dried or pinches of magnolia leaf or 1 clove
1 tsp american juniper berries or 1/4 tsp european juniper
1-3 eastern hemlock cones
3) “hot” or piquant aromatics
1-2 tsp prickly ash berry or sichuan peppercorn
1-3 tsp waterpepper seeds (or 1/2-1 tsp black peppercorns)
1-2 tsp chile flakes or 1-3 small dried hot chiles
Combine all the above in a heavy pan and heat over low to medium heat, tossing every thirty seconds or so, until the spices are toasted and fragrant. You can also store the mix, combined and use as whole spices in pickles or broths, or toast and grind it to order, which will give the best flavor. My only advice would be to use the whole recipe when grinding or using to infuse, as the many different-sized and shaped ingredients tend to separate themselves in the jar.
The trinity of mustard-cumin-wild parsnip is essential to this mix, nearly everything else can be omitted or varied. If using domesticated mustard seed, the variety to use is the brown or black mustard seeds preferred in Indian cuisine. Wild mustard genera which produce seeds that can be used for this include Brassica, Lepidium, Barbarea, Thlaspi, etc. Wild parsnip or pushki (Heracleum maximum, other edible Heracleum species can be substituted) seed, along with wild carrot seed all bear some resemblance to family member coriander. Pushki and wild parsnip have a drier, earthier flavor to them while wild carrot is spicier and lightly citrus-y. Always remember to avoid wild carrot seed if pregnant or desiring to become so–while I doubt that the small amount involved would have much effect unless consumed in massive quantities, wild carrot seed is traditionally considered an abortifacient.
The second group of aromatics are all wild but any can be omitted or substituted with the imported spices listed, with the exception of hemlock cones, which really have no parallel. If there is one wild spice in this group that I would strongly recommend investigating (and not replacing with allspice, which is a paltry substitute), it is spicebush. Native to the eastern US, it is a native understory tree which produces a green berry in summer that matures to a deep red in autumn. It is resinous and pungent and can be used ripe or unripe, fresh or dried. It has become inseparable from various curry mixes and is the most distinctive background player in this recipe, in my opinion.
Heat can be regulated by adjusting the last group of ingredients, which is in part why I have left a range for those items. I would describe this mix as moderately spicy, but not extremely so, even if using the larger numbers and including all three hot items. For a heavier spice, simply add more of whichever piquant aromatic you prefer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :