The black locusts enchanting blossoms are melting away in the rain as I write. As everything else this year, they were 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than usual – I generally count on the 2nd week of May to be peak time for the pearly bunches of fragrant flowers. My nose noticed the first ones on April 28, this year, as I was walking out of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire & Rescue Hall where I was cooking for a wedding. But unlike many other years, this year was a good season, with showy, abundant and long lasting blossoms – well over 10 days. Despite almost 6 inches of rain last week, they kept blooming. But all things end, and now they are just drooping, brown and limp, rain water pulling them down closer to the ground… Read more
Archive for Wild Food
When my neighbor went to Turkey a few years ago, she was fortunate to spend time with a Turkish family, and taste true Turkish cuisine prepared at home. She also had a grand time at the Istanbul Bazaar and came back with amazingly fragrant spices, some of which she gifted me. She really enjoyed many vegetable dishes and was particularly intrigued by a vegetable she never had before… and had I ever heard of it? such a funny name: purslane?
I burst out laughing, and told her I’d bring her a big basket the following morning, wanted to harvest it when it was cool. Which I did. Fair is fair: a basket of “weeds” for a basket of spice.
Because, as you know, many Americans consider purslane (Portulaca oleracea) a weed. In fact, many don’t even know it’s edible. It’s a cousin of the ornamental moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), sometime also called purslane. Don’t confuse the two when buying seeds (you are unlikely to find Portulaca oleracea plants for sale)
Yet – it is. It’s also nutritious, mild (vaguely lemony) & crunchy – and for me it grows when lettuce does not. In the garden, it’s an annual succulent. It self-sows (and how!) but does not germinates until it is quite warm. In poor soil, it can look “weedy” indeed. But in good garden soil, it becomes a handsome plant that hugs the ground. Pick often to delay flowering and to encourage more leaves.
Leaves, stalks, buds, flowers and seeds are all edible. But the younger, firmer, leaves are preferable – so pinch out shoots to harvest (and encourage branching at the same time). I dislike the texture of the tiny seeds, so I swish my harvest in a large bowl of cold water to dislodge the seeds that sink to the bottom of the bowl.
A cultivated “improved” version of purslane exists. The pale-golden green leaves are fleshier than the ones growing wild in my garden, but also more fragile and the plant is not as robust. I prefer the unimproved version.
So how do you eat purslane? Read more
I am not a professional forager, but I do harvest wild plants for eating. The easy ones are summer berries, autumn berries, and pawpaws; the more glamorous ones, morels & chanterelles (although to be truthful, my husband does most of the mushroom hunting); the prettier ones edible flowers like this one or that one; we even got spice… and the humbler ones are greens. And at the end of winter, I can’t get enough fresh green things to eat.
With the snow finally receding, I go to the garden for those wild greens. Few fields are safe nowadays because of herbicides, and I don’t gather from active pastures! So they are wild in the sense that I did not plant them, not because they are in the wild. In fact, many people think of those early greens as “weeds”, yet they are flavorful and nutritious.
Mache (Corn salad) is hardly wild, but it reseed wildly in my garden… and I have seen it in at least two graveled parking lots around here. It is anyhow very early, actually growing through the winter – with accelerated growth in March and early April. For me, it bolts mid-April. With the help of a cold frame, one could harvest it in any weather. Without, you just wait for the snow to melt. There! Vibrant green. Fresh. A delicious salad. I wrote about growing mache before, but really I have not planted mache in years. I just let it reseed.
Then we have hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), a small peppery green from the mustard family. It’s native to Eurasia but has made a home in many gardens in North America. I did not realize until recently that it was edible. I don’t find the plant overly bitter, more like a strong watercress (which I am told grow around here but I have not yet found any myself). But I pick it before it goes to flower – flowering generally changes the taste of a plant (lettuce becomes bitter for example). In fact, when in seed, the plant explodes it ripe seed head, projecting seeds away… maybe even in the eyes of the weeding gardener… Gatherer, be warned! Like mache, hairy bittercress grows in a rosette, so I just cut it at the root level with scissors (which is also how I harvest mache). As for any greens, wash well in a big bowl of water to remove any accumulated soil or debris, and remove any yellowed or tattered leave. Leave the rosette whole or break it. We eat it raw in salad, but it can also be cooked… should you happen to gather several gallons of it.
Finally, the third green that’s abundant for me right now is chickweed (Stellaria media), another European native. It’s a bit tattered at the moment now because of the melting snow, but in a week or two, it’ll just be blush againl. Chicken of course adore chickweed, and soon enough, we’ll share. Meanwhile the tips go in salad. If I feel fancy, in early April, I’ll gather whole plants and make a puree soup of the most beautiful green.
People also harvest dandelion greens and field cress, but I find them too bitter when raw, and I just don’t cook them. If I want cooked greens, I can reach in my freezer; I am hankering for salad right now, so mache, hairy bittercress and chickweed are helping to bulk up the salad bowl. And for that, I am grateful.
Who hasn’t plucked and munched on a handful of wild blackberries or huckleberries while hiking? Didn’t it feel like a tiny treasure hunt, the taste of wild berries sharper, more intense than their tamed counterparts?
Sure, foraging for berries takes time, but you didn’t lift a finger, did not drop a single bead of sweat to propagate, nurture, plant, weed, fertilize nor water the little suckers! You only have to show up and pick. Even with decent foraging skills, a couple of hours of picking yields a harvest that may look slim. After all, I can pick 5 times faster from tidy rows of ‘Apaho’, ‘Triple Crown’ or ‘Navajo’ – three widely planted thornless cultivars – than from a fiercely tangled thorny thicket of wild blackberries. (yes, I have measured!)… but of course the tidy rows have to be maintained, pruned, trellised, weeded, mowed…
Besides, there is nothing like picking wild berries on a warm scented summer morning: the sweetly clean fragrance of pink bouncing-bet, the sharp minty smell of trampled horsemint, the aroma of over ripe berries, the muskiness of rotting vegetation, the heady pervasive scent of flowering basswood humming with bees… it’s… wild! And some berries simply are not cultivated. So if you want them, you get to pick.
Most common berries fruiting in June or July for us include: Read more
End of season for the blossoms – they are now drying for later uses. The bees love linden too. That’s the other name for basswood aka American linden, Tilia americana. The British call linden “lime” which used to confuse me to no end. But by any other name, the flowers smell delicious and the bees turn them into a specially fragrant honey.
Sunday’s walk – a day before the long rain. How fresh and green and vibrant was everything in the cool brilliant day.
Shades of green – a case of walking with your eyes up (no morels for me):
When foraging, it is important to always keep one eyes and nose open.
It can be hard to see fruiting blackberries in July. At that point everything is green and lush and overgrown. Ripe berries can “melt” in the background as you zoom by. But when the blackberries are in bloom, their dog rose-like blossoms just jump at you. Their pure white seems to flutter like butterflies over the surrounding spring green. It is impossible not to notice. That how I mark new blackberry patches: I make note of them when in bloom and come back later when they are berrying.
Ditto with pawpaws, a native fruit that grows by streams and in bottom-land and prefer the edge of the woods. I have written about harvesting and using pawpaws. But in September they can be hard to pick out. In late April or early May (that is, now!), when they are blooming, the groves are very easy to spot.
The drooping maroon flowers are festooning the slim limbs of the trees this year. In the 6 or 7 years that I have been foraging for pawpaws, it’s the first time I recall seeing so many blooms. Their shape and colors are unique and easily identifiable – once you know what you are looking at – especially since the pawpaw is the only tree that has not yet leafed out nor budded. Many flowers will drop off f course, but we may expect a heavy harvest this year.
I am making notes of trees I had not noticed before and plan to visit in the fall.
A small consolation given how meager the morels have been!
Those who have read my blog for a while know of the fondness I have for quince – that almost forgotten fruit. Most of the cultivars grown in our area (and they aren’t that many, although they do exist) need to be cooked to bring out their surprisingly floral aroma.That’s probably why it has fallen out of favor: you can’t just bite into it. I have read though that there are cultivars tasty enough for that. But the quince we get here, you have to cook. And how well you will be rewarded.
It is lovely mixed with apples. But if you cannot find quince, use a good home-made or store- bought apple sauce, preferably unsweetened. Virginia allspice (also called spicebush) is a native understory shrub (Lindera benzoin) whose berries ripen to vermillion in late summer and early fall and taste very similar to the true tropical allspice, with a more peppery bite. I collect the berries in the fall and freeze them until needed. Omit them or use allspice if you do not have access to them.
Yes, the tart shell takes some planning. But the crust won’t be soggy!
I prefer to mix apples for a variety of texture and taste, and prefer to avoid apples that remain really firm when cooked.
Prior entries on quince:
Now is the time to gather the ripe berries of our native spicebush, Lindera benzoin, for use as tea, room fragrance or spice, a plant that has also been used medicinally both by local American-Indian tribes and European colonists.
Spicebush grows all the hills here, and I really only notice it in very early spring and in fall.
In March or April, spicebush unfurls its flowers. Each is small and rather insignificant. But when millions of them are in bloom, it is as if forest undestory – still-unleafed – fills with vaporous pale yellow clouds. Once they are done blooming, spicebush disappear, melting back in the general greenness of the woods. You only notice it if you happen to break off a twig or bruise a leaf – a sweet all-spice fragrance with a hint of camphor fills your nostrils. And of course you notice them again in September and October, when the bright shiny red berries dot the shrubs. They remind me of coffee berries that I grew up up with, but much smaller and not the same shape – but with that same vermillion brilliance that’s really popping at you. The fruit, about the size of my small fingernail, contains one seed. The seeds is more peppery and the pulp sweeter – so some people apparently separate them before storing them. Too much work. I think of them as native all-spice, and use pulp and seeds together. Read more
Trifoliate orange (hardy citrus) grows like an evergreen weed around here. The harvest is ending… What should I make with them this year? (last year I made liqueur)