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On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.
Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.
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It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.
Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.
The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.
“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.
“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”
While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.
“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.
“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”
She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.
“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”
In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.
“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”
The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.
Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.
“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”
Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.
“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.
“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”
Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 24 hours
Yield: 8 cups
1 turkey neck
Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail
1 onion, halved
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
10 whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients
1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.
2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.
3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.
Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo
This year, I toasted the end of the Colorado mushroom season with a cocktail made with chanterelle-infused syrup. A mushroom drink may sound unusual, but the floral and fruity tasty of chanterelles lends them well to cocktails, and it provided a fitting end to what be recorded in my journal as the Year of the Chanterelles.
While mushrooms of all kinds can be found during the warmer months in Colorado, the bulk of the choice edible species grow in the mountains during a brief window at the end of summer. My heart normally belongs to porcini, the hidden jewel of the Rockies. For some reason, the porcini were not as abundant as usual this year. Some speculate that the ground was too cold, others that spring ran too long, or that the rains came too early for a good fruiting. Whatever the reason, the forests that normally boom with porcini were largely silent. I was forced to spend my time outside of my tried-and-true spots, to explore new trails.
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Mushroom hunters are funny. When we aren’t finding many mushrooms, we try to convince ourselves that we do it just for the pleasure of being outside, or learning to identify new species, or to go home with just enough mushrooms to make one nice meal. But the thing that raises mushroom hunting to the heights of an obsession is the rare moments when one can find mushrooms like gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a rush. To find a jackpot cache of mushrooms always reminds me there is magic in this world.
As with most of my best finds in the forest, this year I stumbled upon the biggest cache of chanterelles I’ve ever seen when I stepped off the trail to take a bathroom break. While tip-toeing through the kinnikinnick, I noticed the unmistakable ruffles of orange at my feet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I excitedly whispered, “chanter-stinking-elles!” As my eyes scanned out across the mixed pine forest, I saw waves of chanterelles floating out as far as I could see. There were enough mushrooms in that one spot to enjoy for weeks without having to worry about over-harvesting.
I’ve not had the best luck hunting chanterelles in the past, which may be partly due to my porcini obsession and the fact that porcini and chanterelles grow in different types of forests. There is a certain point in learning to hunt a mushroom when their pattern firmly sets in your brain, and that’s when something shifts. All successful foraging is about pattern recognition.
This was the year that chanterelles became firmly fixed in my mind. Almost instantly, and even from a distance, I can now spot their particular tangerine beige, the uneven curl of their margins, as well as their doughy feel in my hand. Most important, though, is their scent. The fragrance of chanterelles is unlike anything else. I’m quite certain that for the last course of my death row meal, I’d like to finish with a facial steam of the scent of chanterelle mushrooms.
Some people say that chanterelles smell of apricots. I have a friend who swears that they smell exactly like Sweden. Do a quick search on the Internet and you will quickly see that the most common adjective to describe chanterelles is “earthy.” Welcome to meaningless food words 101. Earthy, second only to nutty in uselessness for describing the taste of a food. I will concede that all mushrooms have flavor elements of dirt and decomposition. But chanterelles possess none of the heavy crumbling wood and peat tastes of morels or porcini. Chanterelles are light and bright, fruity and floral. Have you ever been deep in the woods and caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, maybe a sprite or fairy? Yeah, that’s chanterelle. It’s the fine French perfume of the forest, refined and fancy, a celebration, a high note. To my nose, chanterelles smell of a sweet potato that has slow-roasted in the oven until its sugars start to ooze. They also have something waxy about their aroma, like a box of crayons sitting in the sun.
This was the first year that I’ve found enough chanterelles to eat them every night for weeks, pack loads of them into the freezer, and also experiment with them in cooking. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around with an ingredient. I went a little crazy, made chanterelle crème brulee and a chanterelle cake with chanterelle buttercream and candied chanterelles on top. Did I go off the deep end into the orange? Yes, perhaps. But I got to see some of the potential of chanterelle mushrooms beyond just eating them sautéed in butter, which remains my favorite way to eat them.
Chanterelles have their own spirit
The biggest success of my chanterelle experiments was the candied chanterelles. This strikes me as particularly odd since I’ve no real love of sweets. Of all the recipes I made, those candied chanterelles best held that magical fragrance of freshly picked mushrooms. And they came with a bonus, the perfumed syrup that they cooked in, which I wasn’t about to throw away.
What do most people I know do with a novel syrup they’ve welcomed into the kitchen. The friends in my crowd aren’t really pancake people. They’re more the type to dump syrup into a cocktail, so I followed suit.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — a mushroom cocktail? It sounds rather extreme. But remember how some people describe chanterelles as smelling and tasting like apricots? Now, give the idea of the cocktail another try. You can make it doubly flavorful if you use vodka that you’ve infused with chanterelles as well. If you still can’t move beyond the idea of fungally-infused cocktails, you might prefer to try the syrup and candied mushrooms atop some really good vanilla ice cream.
One final note of caution. Chanterelle mushrooms do have toxic look-alikes. As always, only eat mushrooms that you’ve identified with 100% certainty. If you are new to mushroom hunting, consider seeking out your local mushroom club, where you can go on mushroom forays with more experiences guides.
Yield: 4 servings
Prep time: 12 hours
½ cup tiny perfect chanterelles, or larger mushrooms torn into small pieces
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1. Use a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife to pick or scrape any dirt off the mushrooms.
2. In a small pan, stir together the sugar and water, and gently heat them on medium until the syrup starts to bubble.
3. Add the mushrooms and use a spoon to stir and turn them so that every surface is touched with the hot syrup. After one minute, turn off the stove and let the mushrooms and syrup sit at room temperature overnight.
Because of the water content of the mushrooms, both the candied mushrooms and the syrup need to be refrigerated.
Yield: 1 serving
Prep time: 5 minutes
1 ounce chanterelle syrup
1 ounce vodka
3 ounces cold sparkling water
1 candied chanterelle
Gently stir together the chanterelle syrup and vodka. Add the sparkling water, and stir the cocktail together one more time. Serve the chanterelle cocktail with a candied mushroom bobbing about in the bubbles.
Main photo: Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty
Wild mountain huckleberries are everything store-bought blueberries dreamed they could be.
The flavor of the two is similar, but concentrated in huckleberries and balanced with a slight acidity. It’s hard to imagine that the huckleberry, only a fraction of the size of a pea, could possess such intense flavor. But you know what they say about small packages. This particular small package delivers the apex of summer to me, for it ripens only after the mountains have seen their peak heat.
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I remember how angry I was when I realized that the scrubby little plant that had been at my ankles at every hike of my childhood was actually loaded with tasty huckleberries. I likely would have had a distinct advantage in picking them as a child too because the fruit dangles delicately below the plants’ foliage, often completely disguised from above.
In my small region of the Rocky Mountains, there are several species of the genus Vaccinium, with berries ranging in color from red to blue to black. Some would argue that it is most appropriate to refer to them as blueberries, and you might also hear them called billberries, grouseberries or whortleberries.
I learned them as huckleberries, and the fun-to-say name has stuck with me. It often happens that common names for plants vary from region to region. A plant known for generations to one household as pigweed may be a plant from an entirely different genus to someone in a different part of the world. This is why foragers need to refer to Latin binomials when specifying a plant.
Huckleberry plants are usually tall enough to get your boots wet, but rarely tall enough to get your calves wet. I find the pale green of their leaves to be distinctive, and instantly recognize the carpets of huckleberry plants rolled out on the moist soil beneath conifer or mixed conifer and aspen trees. Huckleberry plants are branched and shrubby, with alternating leaves that I’ve most often observed to be less than an inch long.
The fruit are slightly different in appearance from the blueberries most people recognize from the store. In addition to being smaller than a pencil eraser, they have what looks almost like a belly button at their growing end.
For me, the only complication comes in the fact that huckleberries ripen at the same time porcini burst forth on the mountain. To collect enough of the tiny fruit to use in a recipe takes a serious amount of time and effort, and I’m often torn as to whether to use my time to hunt mushrooms or huckleberries. Some years, I’ve merely enjoyed them as trail snacks. In the end, I’ve never regretted picking enough to use in a recipe.
It is a natural to preserve huckleberries as a jam, though I’ve never collected enough to make more than two tiny 4-ounce jars. A few years back, after noticing that my wild syrups sat in the pantry without being used, I discovered that I much prefer making shrubs, which are like syrups made with a healthy dose of vinegar. Most often flavored with fruit, shrubs are, to my mind, the grown-up answer to syrups. Shrub can be used in many of the same places as syrup, such as in fizzy water and cocktails, or to dress fruit salads, but the vinegar used to make shrub gives it a perfect punch of sour meets sweet.
If you prefer to enjoy your huckleberries right away, they are a great addition to all manner of baked goods. You might want to try them in a straight-up blueberry muffin recipe. I recommend using a recipe that calls for sour cream, which I’ve found reliably makes superior blueberry muffins. I really enjoy scones, and think that huckleberries make them only better.
The only trouble with making scones is that the dough is a bit stiff, which can make adding delicate huckleberries a challenge. I’ve gotten around this to a large extent by freezing the berries before they are incorporated into the recipe. The scones recipe I use is adapted from one of my grandmother’s old community church cookbooks, and was attributed to a woman named Edith Hibbard.
There are some shrubs that I prefer to make with fruit that has never been cooked, only macerated with sugar. However, I think it is easier to maximize the flavor and amount of juice in huckleberries by making a cooked syrup.
Preparation time: 2 hours
1 part fruit (all parts by volume, not weight)
3 parts sugar
1 part water
Rice vinegar or other light clear vinegar, equal in measure to the amount of huckleberry syrup
1. In a pot, lightly crush the huckleberries together with the sugar, and let them sit for an hour.
2. Add the water, and bring the huckleberries to a boil. Being such small berries, this is all they need to cook. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the huckleberries cool to room temperature.
3. Strain out the solids from the huckleberry syrup, and be certain to save them to put atop ice cream or your morning toast.
4. Measure the syrup, and combine it with an equal amount of rice vinegar. Stir gently to combine. Pour the shrub into mason jars, and store them in a very cold pantry or refrigerator for at least six months before serving. Once aged, the sharp edges of the vinegar will soften and become the perfect balance for the fruit.
Huckleberry Cream Scones
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon cream
1 egg, beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup huckleberries, frozen
1 tablespoon coarse sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
2. Add in the cubes of butter, and gently toss them with a fork to coat them with flour. Then use the back of the fork to crush the pieces of butter into smaller and smaller pieces as they combine with the flour. Stop when most of the butter is unrecognizable.
3. Make a hole in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Add the ¾ cup cream, egg and vanilla to the depression and use the fork to gently beat them together before gently combining them with the flour and butter. Just before the dough comes together, add the huckleberries. As gently as possible, continue stirring, just until the dough holds together.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and press the dough into a circle 1½ inches thick. Use a butter knife to cut the circle into six wedges. Gently separate the wedges so that they are at least 2 inches apart, and blunt the pointy end with your finger.
5. Brush the top of each with the extra tablespoon of cream, and sprinkle on some of the coarse sugar.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and tops of the scones are lightly brown.
Main photo: Mountain huckleberries. Credit: Erica Marciniec
Though I’d been anticipating it for weeks, it was while sitting at a stoplight that the intoxicating aroma of linden flowers (Tilia spp.) first hit my nose. I jerked my head around, craning over my shoulder and peering out the windows in a desperate attempt to locate the tree whose flowers supply my favorite herbal tisane.
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No doubt the people in the surrounding cars thought I was nuts. If only they knew that the tree with the fiercely fragrant flowers could provide them with a divine beverage, they too would be thrilled by the scent.
As my years as a forager roll on, I become clearer about which crops are worth my time to harvest. I try to live on wild edible plants for as much of the year as possible, no easy task in the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season where I live in Colorado.
This means I have to work hard during the short period of growth, not only to harvest my favorite plants in great enough quantity to get me through the off-season, but also to preserve those plants, whether by drying, freezing, or canning.
As my go-to beverage, linden is high atop my list of desirable wild foods. Last year, I picked and dried enough linden flowers to fill a laundry basket. It wasn’t enough. In late winter, thirsting for my favorite tea, I pillaged the linden stocks of two friends.
Fragrant foraging in the shade
Also known as basswood or lime, linden is a deciduous tree with leaves shaped like slightly crooked hearts. In my area, they are used frequently as ornamental trees, mostly likely for their fragrant flowers and generous shade. The bees are particularly fond of linden, and one can often locate the trees by the sound of buzzing bees.
When the leaves first emerge and are still tender, they can be eaten in salads and sandwiches. The flowers clusters grow along with a long pale green leaf-like structure, known as a bract. When harvesting, pinch off the bract and flower clusters of linden. Since the trees flower abundantly, it is often most efficient to grab several flower clusters, avoiding the leaves, and strip them off all at once.
As with all flowers, to maximize fragrance, and therefore flavor, it is best the harvest linden flowers in full sun. It may sound obvious, but on a hot day, by all means, stand in the shade of the tree while harvesting flowers. It will make a difference when your arms tire.
As always, be sure to forage in the cleanest possible location. Avoid linden trees that grow alongside busy streets or in areas that might have been sprayed with chemicals.
Herbalists know that although it is gentle enough for children and seniors alike, linden is strong medicine, soothing and demulcent. Throughout the scorching growing season, I enjoy cold infusions of linden flowers, which help me to deal with the heat and stay moisturized from the inside out. By winter, the sight of delicate linden flowers floating in my teacup call to mind the long days of summer.
Turn linden into teas and cocktails
With experience as a forager, I’ve given up commercial teas in favor of my wild herbal blends. Not only does this save me money, but I have the reassurance of knowing exactly where my tea came from. I’ve also become quite skilled as a drink-maker, despite initially not knowing much about the subject.
Even though I couldn’t really sniff out a great glass of wine, and don’t know the difference between whisky and whiskey, I make amazing concoctions and cocktails that are hits both in my house and at social events. As a wildcrafter, I have the advantage of bringing truly unique flavors to any party.
If you’ve got a tasty wild edible plant on your hands, I encourage you to experiment with ways to preserve it. Infuse it into vodka, later adding sugar syrup to taste if needed. Try it in vinegar, or in a shrub, which is an aged mix of infused vinegar and sugar. Combine it with whichever fruit is in season. Dabble in making homemade bitters. This year, I’ve got an experimental batch of linden vinegar going, as well as a jar of linden and lemon balm in gin.
Whether you are new to linden or and old pro, you can’t beat classic linden tisane and honey infused with heady linden flowers.
Pick off the freshest linden flowers (leaving behind stems and bracts), enough to loosely fill a jar. Pour fresh honey over the flowers, and leave them for at least three weeks in a warm place. Though there is no need to do so, if you wish to strain out the linden flowers after the honey has infused, set the linden honey in a sunny windowsill for a day, then strain out the flowers. The candied flowers can be enjoyed atop ice cream or cake. The floral-scented honey can be the genesis of myriad recipes. This recipe is so beautiful, you may want to consider making several extra jars of linden honey to use as gifts.
Cold-Infused Linden Tisane
1 cup loosely packed linden flowers (fresh or dried), bracts included
20 small wild rose heads (substitute one green tea bag)
½ gallon lukewarm water
1. Add the linden flowers, roses, and water to a ½ gallon mason jar. Leave the jar on a counter for 8 hours, then refrigerate it until cold.
2. Strain out the flowers, squeezing with your hands. Serve over ice, and with a drizzle of linden honey if you prefer sweet tea.
½ cup cold-infused linden tisane
¼ cup white grape juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ounce gin
½ cup seltzer water
Stir together all the ingredients, and serve them over ice.
Main photo: Foraged linden flowers in a basket. Credit: Wendy Petty
As a forager, I suspect the fact that world-class chefs are gaga for wild foods at once glamorizes them and makes them seem inaccessible to the home cook.
Like so many others, I’m inspired by the imaginative and innovative cooking techniques that top-level chefs such as Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson use with foraged foods, showcasing ingredients that some mock as sticks and berries to their full potential. The downside is that there seems to be a disconnect between people who are interested in eating foraged goods, and their ability to actually incorporate these wild foods into their kitchens.
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When all is said and done, we’re still talking about eating weeds. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating weeds. I’m obsessed with seeking out and collecting them to eat. They are the backbone of my kitchen. Although foraging can certainly be an adventure, the meat of it has more to do with being able to cook with the plants I see every day than any exotic or obscure finds. These aren’t the sexy plants that make foodies drivel and drool, the deep-forest mushrooms and delicate gem-like flowers. They are humble leafy greens, dock, dandelions or invasive species of mustard. These are the same weeds reviled by gardeners, cities and farmers alike.
Know your wild plants
When I teach, I encourage people to let go of their desire to have an encyclopedic knowledge of wild edibles. Instead, I talk about getting to know 10 plants very well, seeing them at every stage of growth, and knowing how to cook them at many stages. After all, I gained my own knowledge of wild plants one at a time. In some cases, it has taken me years to really understand a particular species. For an aspiring forager, it’s better to know a few wild plants well and eat them on a regular basis than it is to know how to identify hundreds of plants without ever getting comfortable enough to actually eat them. If one is to know only a few foraged foods, it makes sense that they should be ones that are close at hand.
Just as the majority of car accidents happen within five miles of home, simply because that is where people spend most of their time driving, most of the foods I forage are outside my door. I’m particularly fond of foraging an old irrigation ditch, which makes for a pleasant bike ride from my home to an area that used to be an apple farm 100 years ago. It’s a route I’ve traveled a few times per week over the several years.
There’s a particular joy and intimacy that comes in interacting with the same small strip of land over time. I watch the seasons progress, and know when to expect certain crops. I also get to closely monitor spraying, mowing and other man-made dangers. In that one small area, I’ve witnessed years of drought, and the shocking flood that followed. Still, I’m still surprised to see new things along my favorite ditch all the time, plants I never knew were there, new nesting birds and predators that had previously remained hidden. Knowing that place well informs how I harvest, when each plant peaks, which of them needs to be harvested immediately, and which of them needs to be protected.
No Disney characters
I sometimes get the impression that people envision foraging to involve tip-toeing through dappled light with a basket over one’s arm, birds singing background music like Disney characters in the trees. The truth is that there’s little glamor in my daily walks or rides along my ditch. In fact, foraging in this way is often sweaty and backbreaking. I wear out several pairs of shoes every year. It takes careful consideration not to damage plant populations or ecosystems. Often, it involves selecting individual leaves from plants, or visiting many locations to harvest enough of a particular plant to make a recipe. Still, I’m an awestruck witness to a quiet beauty that is both constant and ever-changing. At its best, foraging is about developing a relationship, a connection, with a place. It is the ultimate act of local eating.
All good relationships are based upon respect. In this case, respect ensures that the same plants will be available to harvest for many years, and hopefully many generations, to come. My hope is that foraged foods can gain the same celebrity as food darlings such as kale. It can start with a combination of inspiration from dazzling chefs and a deep appreciation of the weedy and abundant wild foods that grow close to home.
Dandelion Greens With Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
8 slices cooked bacon, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil 2 shallots, finely chopped
¼ cup sherry vinegar pepper
8 cups dandelion greens, washed and torn into 3-inch pieces salt
1. In a skillet, brown the bacon in olive oil over medium high heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon pieces and set them aside.
2. Reduce heat to medium, add the shallots, and sauté until they become translucent but not browned.
3. Add the sherry vinegar and stand back as it bubbles away for 30 seconds to a minute. Remove the vinaigrette from the heat, then stir in a pinch of black pepper.
4. In a saucepan, bring 2 inches of water to a boil and then reduce it to a bare simmer, so that a few bubbles are rising. Break each egg first into a tea cup and then gently pour it into the water. Poach the eggs for two minutes, or until the whites have set and the yolks are still soft when you push them with your finger.
5. In a large bowl, pour the vinaigrette over the dandelion greens. Give them a quick toss before transferring them to plates. Top each salad with crispy bacon pieces and a poached egg that has been blotted dry with a towel. Give each egg a sprinkling of salt and pepper before serving immediately.
Main story: Dandelion greens with warm bacon vinaigrette. Credit: Wendy Petty
“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”
I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”
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It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.
Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.
Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.
In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.
Dandelions wintering in the garage
Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.
Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.
I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.
As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.
I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”
Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.
After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.
Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions
Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.
Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month. I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.
Dandelion Miso Soup
2 cups water
2½ tablespoons white or yellow miso
2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped
1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops
1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.
2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.
3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.
Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.
Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty