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As a kid, I’d follow close on my dad’s heels when he went to the local fishing hole, where he’d spend the day reeling in crappie and bluegill. We’d share peanut butter sandwiches and catch crawdaddies and garter snakes while waiting for the fish to bite. At some point in the day, we’d always hunt for wild asparagus, which also grew around the pond.
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My father will tell anyone who will listen that the asparagus doesn’t grow until the thunder shakes it from the ground. He has a full head of white hair now, and people sit in rapture of his wisdom. Me? I’m not so sure. I picked my first asparagus this year between snowstorms. It made its debut almost seven weeks later than last year.
That might sound frustrating, but it is actually part of the appeal. I only eat wild asparagus, which grows during a narrow window in the spring.
For me, store-bought asparagus will never do. I don’t ever want to see it on my plate at the end of summer, or at Thanksgiving. The fact that it only appears once a year, and in a way that is highly variable, only adds to its charm. When the asparagus finally arrives, it is a herald of the season, and it is marked with a feast. Part of the joy of foraging is only eating foods during the short window of time that they are in season. It makes for an endless series of celebrations.
The wild asparagus I forage, Asparagus officinalis, is the same that Euell Gibbons made famous in his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It is also the same species as the one sold commercially. This means that once you know how to find it in the wild, it is readily recognized.
The surest way to find asparagus is to find the overgrown fern-like mature plants from the previous year. For the most part, it grows in the same place from year to year. Old, dried asparagus has a distinctive orange-yellow tone that stands out against the new green growth of spring. Wild asparagus seems to really love fence lines, railroads and drainage ditches, but don’t be surprised to see it growing in the middle of a field.
Some people will try to tell you that only thin asparagus is good. Don’t believe them. Thick or thin, wild asparagus tastes the same. I prefer the thicker ones simply because they provide a more substantial bite of asparagus goodness. The most important factor in picking wild asparagus is to choose stalks that still have tightly closed heads, no matter how tall or thick they should grow.
Wild Asparagus Bites
I prefer to serve these gluten-free nibbles at room temperature, but they are equally delicious eaten hot or cold.
12 spears wild asparagus
1 shallot, sliced into half moons
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 ounces goat cheese chevre
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Clean the wild asparagus and prepare them by snapping off the tough ends.
3. Toss the asparagus and shallots with olive oil, salt and pepper, making certain the asparagus and shallots are coated with oil.
4. Place the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until the thickest asparagus spear can easily be pierced with a knife. After removing the asparagus and shallots, reduce the oven temperature to 300 F.
5 While the asparagus is roasting, prepare the cheesy base. Mix together the ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, cornstarch, salt and pepper until they are evenly combined.
6. Carefully cut off the tips of the roasted asparagus and set them aside.
7. Chop the remaining asparagus and shallots. You can do this roughly with a knife. Just make certain the pieces end up at least a quarter-inch thick or smaller.
8. Stir the chopped asparagus and shallots into the egg and cheese mixture.
9. Fill 12 greased mini muffin cups three-quarters full with the asparagus mixture. Place an asparagus tip atop each filled cup.
10. Bake the wild asparagus bites at 300 F for 20 minutes.
Wild asparagus bites. Credit: Wendy Petty
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
Foraging is the best way I know to stay immersed in the landscape I love. Equally important, I forage because it stocks my kitchen with scrumptious, high-quality food. I live at the base of the Rocky Mountains, where there are booming growing seasons and long cold winters, so preserving my wild harvest is the ideal way to have access to foraged foods throughout the year. As someone who puts up wild goods regularly, I was very excited to read “Preserving Wild Foods,” which addresses how to take advantage of wild products through pickling, preserving, fermentation and curing.
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By Raquel Pelzel, Matthew Weingarten
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From the outset, it is apparent that author Matthew Weingarten not only forages, but enjoys it immensely. What is most intriguing about “Preserving Wild Foods” is the perspective the author brings to the subject as a chef working in New York City. He’s not someone who lives next to a remote stream in the woods. Rather, he’s a city dweller who still finds a valuable connection with the land through wild harvests. In this book, Weingarten and co-author Raquel Pelzel tackle products from environments ranging from ocean-side all the way to the countryside, transforming fruit, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, fish and game, into tempting jams, chutneys, charcuterie and more.
Inventive wild food flavors
“Preserving Wild Foods” shines when Weingarten uses his sensibilities as a chef to both wake up standard recipes and introduce new flavor combinations. Take for example samphire pickles, in which he seasons the coastal plant also known as sea beans with chiles, coriander and garlic. Weingarten adds a slightly unexpected flavor twist in his old world rose hip jam by adding cardamom and grenadine. He also shares some recipes that may be new to the home cook, like crab apple mostarda, or frutti di bosco compote, which is made with wild mushrooms, blueberries and herbs.
Intrigued by the unusual flavor pairing, I tried my hand at a half batch of pecan and fennel seed brittle. I didn’t want to chance ruining the two cups of honey required by the full batch. The instructions were easy to follow, and even included a bit of advice I’d never before tried when making brittle: to put a second pan on top of the freshly poured candy, and press it with a rolling pin to made an evenly thick product. I found pecan and fennel seed brittle to be especially good crumbled over ice cream.
Foraged, feral and garden-grown
I was a bit surprised to find that one of the chapters in “Preserving Wild Foods” contains many recipes for agricultural or gardened food products. I appreciate the argument that feral foods, those that used to be kept but have since gone wild, bridge the gap between foraging and gardening. And I can also see that for a person operating in the heart of a major metropolitan area, visiting the farmers market feels a bit like foraging. But I found the appearance of a recipe for watermelon pickles in a book about wild foods to be a bit of an incongruity.
Instead of including recipes for dill cucumber pickles, pickled peppers and bacon, I would have preferred to see the chef share more recipes made with wild foods, perhaps with a focus on ways to preserve unloved weeds that thrive in the city. I’d love to see how the Weingarten would use his experienced palate to approach preserving lamb’s quarter, sow thistle, dock or the lemon clover he mentions in passing on a page dedicated to the joys of spring greens.
“Preserving Wild Foods” would benefit from a cleaner presentation. The mish-mash of recipe introductions, tips, drawings, formal photographs, and Polaroid-style snapshots seem to be an attempt at warmth, like reading the journal of a chef, but the overall effect is a bit jumbled. I would have loved to see this book broken into two volumes, one about plants, and the other with the focus on charcuterie. A full third of the recipes in “Preserving Wild Foods” are for meat or fish, so be aware if you are expecting all plant-based dishes or are vegetarian.
“Preserving Wild Foods” is a book packed with all manner of recipes for putting up wild products. I especially enjoyed the author’s clear delight in foraging. As someone who is adventurous in the kitchen, I was excited to see more unusual recipes like that for modern garum, a fermented fish sauce made from heads and guts. However, given the level of skill required to can and cure at home, this may not be the ideal book for home cooks who aren’t already fairly comfortable in the kitchen. Novices might be intimidated by some of the recipes, and it should be noted that this is a cookbook, not a field guide. While the author writes lovely introductions about the highlighted ingredients, there are no warnings to stay away from red elderberries or beware of angelica’s dangerous look-alikes. “Preserving Wild Foods” could potentially be a valuable book for aspirational foragers, preserving geeks, and people who forage regularly and serious about preserving their finds.
Chef Matthew Weingarten and “Preserving Wild Foods.” Credit: Storey Publishing
It is said that a wise person rides the tide of the seasons, and takes the changes in stride, admiring the beauty of each in turn. Clearly I’m not yet wise. Foraging is my greatest passion, the thing that makes my heart squeeze in rapture. However, in the Central Rockies, where I live, growing seasons can be maddeningly short. I’m able to pick plants in appreciable quantities only from May to October, if the weather cooperates. For the rest of the year, when the ground is a frayed quilt of forlorn browns and filmy whites, my off-season foraging desires go largely unfulfilled.
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This situation is made infinitely worse in the age of the Internet. If I lived in relative isolation in this place, I might be able to appreciate the quiet of my foraging off-season. But every time I power up my computer, I’m bombarded by images from foragers in more temperate zones. My fellow wildcrafters in California are picking lush greens and budding plants. Foraging buddies in Australia are enjoying fruits of all colors. My friend in Israel regularly returns home from foraging trips with enough food to cover her kitchen table. And here I am, trapped by the skim-milk skies of winter, growing increasingly despondent.
Oh sure, there are things I could pick, even when it has been freezing for months. But snipping tips from conifers, scraping at bark, rattling crusty old amaranth for seeds, and freeing roots from the frozen clay soil with a pick ax can hold my attention only for so long.
None of those things compares to the glamour of plucking a mushroom from the ground, or filling a basket with verdant new leaves.
Nordic winter inspiration
Luckily, something has come along this year that has broken my funk, and kept me from pouting. In his restaurant, Fäviken, chef Magnus Nilsson employs a creative process to create the highly localized menu.
Some have scoffed at Nilsson’s recipes, such as “Monkfish gilled slowly over burning birch coals, a leaf of kale steamed so briefly that it is dying on the plate, green juniper and alcohol vinegar,” going so far as to call them pretentious. I don’t see pretentiousness here. I see a glimpse into the mind of an innovator who is generous with his accounts of how he arrives at his final dishes.
I consider myself a creative cook, but Nilsson is performing kitchen magic that rattles even my imagination. He relies on everything from employing unusual curing techniques, to using odd foraged items such as lichens, to aging vinegar in a burnt-out tree stump. And he’s doing it all year long in Sweden, a place like my own home that suffers real winters.
Nilsson’s is the kind of U-turn thinking that I find incredibly inspiring, and it has shaken the way I’m looking at what is available to forage and cook, even in deep winter.
In several recipes, Nilsson utilizes brown, decaying leaves in his cooking. He cooks root vegetables in a nest of leaves, so that the diner can have the experience of plucking roots fresh from the garden.
He also uses leaves from the forest floor to make delicate infusions to serve with both meats and vegetables.
Perhaps not everyone can appreciate the excitement I felt upon seeing rotting leaves being used in a recipe. But it was a technique that I was itching to try, and I wasted no time in experimenting with it. An infusion of decaying leaves smells exactly like taking a walk in the woods on a damp autumn day, and it tastes rather like tea, with a pleasant mild bitterness. It makes the perfect complement to the quiet, earthy flavors of the snow season. In this recipe, I’ve used it along with freshly caught mountain trout, root vegetables, and a wild green called mallow.
5 to 6 big handfuls of decaying leaves from the forest floor
4 trout fillets (reserving the skin if you fillet them yourself)
½ teaspoon ground sumac (or a few drops of lemon juice)
Olive oil, as needed
4 cups boiling water
½ pound various root vegetables (such as burdock, parsnip, carrot), cut into matchsticks
12 mallow leaves (or parsley)
Rice flour (or cornstarch)
1. Place the leaves in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, cover, and leave them to brew like a tea.
2. Season the trout fillets with salt, pepper, and sumac, then roll each up into a bundle.
3. Place the trout rolls onto a lightly greased baking sheet, and brush each roll with a small amount of oil. Bake the trout in a 350 F oven until a thermometer stuck into the center of the rolls reads 145 F, approximately 15 minutes.
4. While the trout is baking, boil the root vegetable matchsticks in salted water just until they become tender, 1 to 3 minutes. Drain the vegetables, and set them aside.
5. Strain the leaves out of the tea, and discard them. Do not salt the leaf tea.
6. Dust the mallow leaves (or parsley) with a little rice flour (or cornstarch), then briefly pan-fry them in a little oil until they go crispy. If you’ve filleted your own trout, fry pieces of the fish skin at the same time. The fried mallow leaves and fish skin add a crunchy contrast to the finished dish.
7. To assemble the dish, place the baked trout roll in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Scatter the root vegetable matchsticks around the fish, then gently ladle a cup of the leaf broth over the fish and vegetables. Garnish with the crispy fried mallow leaves and fish skin.
Mountain trout with root vegetables and mallow greens. Credit: Wendy Petty
The buzz and hustle of the holiday season sometimes make me feel as if I’m standing in the middle of a rushing river. The constant noise and music, the tide of guests, the gifts to wrap, meals to cook, the parties to attend can all feel like a crushing deluge. It’s only when I close my eyes that the accelerated motion around me pauses. Underneath the crush lies the soft lining of the holidays, the touch of North winds upon my cheek, owls chatting in the night, the glow of firelight in the eyes of my loved ones, and always, there is an aromatic undercurrent of pine.
Not only is pine is the scent of the season that locks warm memories in my head, it is also an edible treat. You might expect pine to taste of the cool damp woods. But it also sings with bright notes of citrus like grapefruit, tangerine and lemon, and can add an unexpected spark of cheer to your holiday meals.
Foraged pine tips
Pine are usually fairly easy to identify, as their needles emerge from the branch in bundles of two, three or five, rather than singly like spruce or fir (both of which can also be eaten). Conifers are almost all edible. However, make certain you’ve correctly identified your tree before eating it. A novice could confuse pine with yew, which is poisonous when eaten. Consult a local guidebook or a foraging friend, or use a search engine to find which species of pine grow in your area.
Once you are certain that you’ve found an edible pine, your next task is to taste it. There can be tremendous variation in flavor from tree to tree, so find one that tap dances across your taste buds. Spring is the ideal time to collect pine tips. At that time, they are so tender they may be munched raw. Don’t be discouraged from eating pine at other times of year, however. Mature pine needles, even though they are tough, still offer many possibilities in your kitchen.
Start with a simple tisane
When you are ready to harvest, simply snip buds away from a branch with a pair of scissors. Avoid over-harvesting or taking needles from the tips of branches, especially at the top of the tree, as it will be more susceptible to disease.
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As charming as it might seem, don’t be tempted to eat your Christmas tree, unless you are absolutely certain it has not been sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Also, as a precaution, pine is not for pregnant women.
If you are new to consuming pine, I suggest making pine needle tisane. Simply brew a handful of pine needles in a cup of hot water, as you would a tea.
Another fantastically simple way to incorporate the flavor of pine into your cooking is to make either pine sugar or pine salt. All you have to do is buzz up a few tablespoons of either salt or sugar with a bunch of pine needles in your spice grinder, then sift out any large bits of remaining needles. Roasts and steaks are made exceptionally aromatic when rubbed with pine salt, and root vegetables have a special affinity for it. Pine sugar can be used as a garnish or ingredient in your favorite baking recipes. I’m particularly fond of using pine sugar in shortbread, and also using it to rim all of my holiday cocktails.
Whether enjoyed as a simply brewed cup of hot tisane, sprinkled into meals as a compound salt or sugar, or made into an intriguing gelée condiment, pine’s surprising citrus tones can add a kick to your kitchen this holiday season.
Once you’ve tried your hand at brewing pine tisane, and have played with adding pine salt and pine sugar to your recipes, you are ready to try something a little more advanced, like this pine gelée.
pine needles (enough to fill about half a Mason jar)
½ cup white wine vinegar
1½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoon powdered gelatin
1. Use scissors to snip pine needles into an 8-ounce Mason jar until it is approximately ½ to ¾ full.
2. In a small pan on the stove, heat ½ cup of white wine vinegar just until it is warm, but not simmering. Pour the warm vinegar over the pine needles in the Mason jar. Cover the jar with a plastic lid, and let the pine needles steep in the vinegar at least until it has reached room temperature, but ideally for a few days. Next, strain out the needles so that you are left with clear pine-infused vinegar.
3. Pour the pine vinegar into a small pan. Sprinkle in 1½ teaspoon of sugar and 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin. Let the gelatin sit atop the cold vinegar for 5 to 10 minutes. Gently turn up the heat on your stove, and let the vinegar get warm enough to dissolve the sugar and gelatin. You should be able to see this happen. As soon as the vinegar has become clear, pour it back into the Mason jar. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
4. As the pine vinegar gelée starts to set, rake a chopstick though it so that it resembles broken glass. Serve a spoonful of this unusual tangy condiment with your favorite meat, fish, or roasted vegetables.
Foraged pine cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty
The first time I spotted a highbush cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus), I was riding my bike along a ditch in early December. Nestled up against the Rocky Mountains, it had been freezing hard for months by that time, and it was rare to see anything left to forage, let alone finding bright red berries. I had to stop my bike and investigate the fruit that had caught my eye.
There’s an old wives’ tale that if a bird won’t eat a fruit, it’s poisonous. It turns out that isn’t true for many fruits, including highbush cranberries. But nature has its own wisdom. While these cranberries are indeed edible, most creatures avoid them because they possess sourness and a scent verging on funk. As a forager desperate for material with which to play, I picked those highbush cranberries and have every year since.
Due to their musky scent, in my house, highbush cranberries have earned the nickname, “stinky sock berries.” The smell of them is so strong that I even go to the trouble to cook them outside, so that I don’t need to air out my home after making highbush cranberry sauce.
In North America, V. trilobum and V. edulis, are the preferred species because they are less bitter. The ones I have access to are the ones forager Sam Thayer has dubbed “bad” highbush cranberries, V. opulus. They are native to Europe, but here they are merely escaped ornamental plants.
Look for berries during frost season
True cranberries are a member of the Heath family. Highbush cranberries are in the Honeysuckle family, and are related to elderberries, which can also have a characteristic musk. Highbush cranberry fruit, or drupes, grow on a deciduous shrub that grows to about 12 feet to 15 feet hight. Its opposite, serrated, tri-lobed leaves resemble those of a maple tree.
Historically, the bark of the highbush cranberry has been used for menstrual cramps, accounting for one of its common names, crampbark. In the spring, the shrub blossoms with fireworks-like bursts of white flowers, somewhat resembling hydrangeas with smaller flowers in the center, and larger sterile flowers bordering them in a ring. Highbush cranberry shrubs fruit in late summer, at first green then turning red. Each individual red berry contains a single flat disk-shaped seed.
There is some conflict as to whether to harvest highbush cranberries before or after the frost. To my palate, the V. opulus taste about the same before and after a frost, although they are softer and easier to run through a food mill after a freeze. The good news is that highbush cranberries are relatively easy to pick. The drupes can quite easily be pulled from the shrubs without a mess.
Some good food comes with a little funk
Despite their detractors, stinky-sour “bad” highbush cranberries have their uses. Some of the world’s most sought-after foods have a distinctive funk. Can you imagine haute cuisine without pungent foods like cheese and truffles?
Long cold winters with few plants to forage force quite a bit of creativity. Highbush cranberries possess a strong flavor, to be sure. But used with a deft hand, they are a great pair with game meats, offal and other strong flavors. One of my favorite ways to serve highbush cranberry sauce is with liver.
Needless to say, highbush cranberries are a food for adventurous palates. However, for those who dare to walk on the wild side, they can bring an unusual new flavor to the Thanksgiving table. Highbush cranberries marry particularly well with the darker, gamier meat of heritage breed and wild turkeys.
Highbush Cranberry Sauce
3 cups highbush cranberries, stripped from stems
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons orange zest
Juice of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1. Pass the raw highbush cranberries through a food mill. Their disk-shaped seeds and skins should easily be left behind. You will be left with a pulpy red juice.
2. Pour the raw highbush cranberry juice into a heavy-bottomed pan and add the remaining ingredients.
3. Over medium heat, bring the ingredients to a low boil, so that large bubbles rise around the edge of the pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low so that the mixture remains at a low boil.
4. Continue to cook, skimming off and discarding any scum that rises to the top of the pan, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the highbush cranberry sauce resembles the texture of jam. Test this by dropping 4 to 5 drops onto a metal spoon and placing the spoon in the freeze for a minute. If the sauce is ready, it will resemble the texture of jam after being in the freezer. If not, it will still be runny, and will need to be cooked down further and retested until it has become jam-like in consistency.
5. Pour the hot highbush cranberry sauce into a sterilized jar. Let cool to room temperature.
6. Refrigerate the highbush cranberry sauce until you are ready to use it. It may be eaten cold, or warmed.
Photo: Highbush cranberry sauce. Credit: Wendy Petty