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