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.

Edible Vs. Palatable

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When it comes to enjoyment or dislike of various flavors, no two people will ever completely resonate. For each of us, the answer to whether a particular food (wild or domesticated) is edible, palatable or actively distasteful is always going to be different.

Wild plants place us in a particularly easy to resolve area of this conversation. If something is technically edible but we don’t enjoy it, we leave it uncollected for those who do. For example, I actively dislike the berries of the wildly invasive Japanese barberry. I sincerely doubt that a time will come in my life when I will need this overwintering berry to survive. But if I ever did, you can bet that I would regard them as palatable. And then their sheer abundance would then be a blessing rather than a curse.

So by “palatable” in a wild plants context we are usually indicating a plant we aren’t interested in collecting. The distinction is an important one to bear in mind when studying and learning new plants and mushrooms because it often keeps us from over-harvesting or attempting crazy, time-intensive kitchen preparations trying to properly cook something we’ve learned is “edible.” It’s another reason why multiple sourcing any wild plant or mushroom is so very critical. In general, one will begin to get a sense of the limitations of using or preparing one’s catch by the widespread consensus on whether something is edible or merely palatable.

Into the latter category one will often find mushrooms and plants whose use is classified as “technically edible” or “medicinal.” The birch polypore mushroom (Piptoporus betulinus, pictured above) could be considered both. It’s an abundant late fall to winter mushroom in our area and can be used to make a tea for drinking or a broth for cooking. Technically, I could probably figure out a way to reduce its spongy, dense body into something that could pass through my body. But it would require such an expenditure of energy that it’s unlikely I’ll ever conduct the experiment. I’m content with steeping and infusing it, where it’s neither palatable nor distasteful but nicely bitter and useful for cooking and health.

When does an otherwise excellent edible become merely palatable? Beyond matters of taste, all foods require proper preparation to be delicious rather than simply digestible. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had (and made) a tasteless potato at some point in our lives, but then we discover how to cook them. The same is true of wild plants–each new ingredient must be learned on its’ own. It is at this point that comparisons to domesticated plants and cooking directions such as “prepare like asparagus” become ineffectual. One must learn to prepare nettles like nettles, not like spinach. Needless to say, the proper preparation is especially important to bear in mind when elements of toxicity are involved, as with milkweed or pokeweed. More often than not though, it is the difference between something one enjoys eating and something one merely gets through.