Thursday, May 30, 2013

Foraged Recipe: Black Locust & Ricotta Crostini with Wild Mint

Some flowers taste like flowers. Others have a floral quality, but taste primarily like something else. The black locust is one of these, its flowers taste like the sweetest of sweet spring peas, though they have a slightly crunchy texture--like celery.

Around here, black locust blooms are only available for about 2 weeks out of the year, in the late spring. Aside from being delicious, they have the advantage of being very abundant, hard to over-harvest, easy to pick, and pretty easy to identify. Check out my identification post here.

Black locust is frequently used as other edible flowers are used: in baking, or to make syrups. I really don't like to bake, and I wanted to make something that would highlight the pea-like flavors, rather than the floral taste. I also wanted something fresh to celebrate the end of spring. Peas and mint are a pretty classic combo, and cheese makes everything better, right? With wild mint in season, this pretty little appetizer (also good for a light lunch) seemed like a slam dunk. It tastes good, and is attractive an exotic enough to convert even the most hesitant non-forager.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Foraged Recipe: Milkweed Shoot, Pancetta, & Ramp Sallet

This is the kind of dish that keeps me foraging. I would go so far as to say it's the kind of dish that represents the lifestyle I aspire to lead: meals made with a mix of wild edibles and high-quality, healthy (mostly) store-bought ingredients. Meals that are quick enough for weeknights, but make dinner feel like a special occasion. Meals that are so good, and so easy, that I will never order take-out Chinese again.

I'm not there yet, but this was a great start.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Foraging: Identifying & Harvesting Black Locust

Identification difficulty: Beginner

When I got formally into "foraging" as an adult, and read about the black locust, it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that this tree and I were already well acquainted. As a very young child, our next-door neighbor had on of these at the side of his house, and I was fixated. I called it the "Tutti Fruity Tree", mainly because its autumn foliage was primarily shades of pink and coral, rather than the more typical red, gold and orange. I loved that tree from late spring (where I would shower myself in the fallen blossoms) through the fall, when it's unusual coloration captivated me. I had even "foraged" as a 5-year old for the fallen bean pods; that is to say, I gathered them up and made mud-pies. I had no idea that the flowers were edible, nor would my parents have allowed me to really eat them, even if I had wanted to.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why You Should Forage & Eat Garlic Mustard + Simple Recipe Ideas

Flowering garlic mustard in mid-May, when it is easiest to identify
(also check out its distant cousin--the edible yellow rocket in the picture)

You can't help but see this plant everywhere. It's a horribly invasive weed which damages ecosystems by crowding out other native plant species. It's a bully whose numerous seeds spread everywhere, it secrets toxins which poison the fungi native plants need to live, and it can live overwinter, under snow, and get a jump start on the spring season.

It's also a tasty, versatile, and nutritious vegetable.

Whether you are just getting into foraging, or if you have been into wild plants for years, Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one species you shouldn't pass up. Its abundant, easy-to-identify, every part of the plant is edible, and it's available year-round, and, due to it's invasive nature, gathering as much of it as you want actually helps, rather than hurts, the environment. It's probably the wild plant I eat the most of, every year.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Foraged Knotweed Salsa Verde Recipe

Ok, ok. I absolutely promise that this is my last knotweed post for the year. They are definitely past their prime size, and I had to be very picky and choosy about which stalks I took. And this year the season is a week or two late, usually knotweed is done by early May.

Knotweed at this height is at the end of its season.
It can be eaten before it starts to branch, but must be peeled.
The idea for this recipe came while I was craving salsa verde. At the restaurant  I couldn't shake the feeling that it was familiar, and not just because I had had salsa verde many times in the past. Tomatillos have a zesty freshness, a flavor that combines vegetable flavors with a citrusy kick--a taste I thought was very similar to the lemony flavor of knotweed!

Once done, honestly the flavor is nearly identical to tomatillo-based salsa verde. Even my husband, who doesn't care for knotweed, really enjoyed this recipe. And for you localvores out there, knotweed is a great way to get the flavor here in the Northeast, in the spring, when tomatillos would need to be imported.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Superfood "Mac & Cheese" Casserole Recipe with Foraged Nettles and Quinoa

While looking for morels this weekend, I was pretty excited to stumble upon a nice patch of wood nettles. Wood nettles, like their more popular cousins the stinging nettles, are nutritional powerhouses--superfoods! They are rich in vitamins A, C, D, and K, and calcium (more than a glass of milk!).

For me, nettles I trust to eat are rather a rarity. Stinging nettles are generally easier to find, because they prefer disturbed ground settings, growing as common weeds in areas that have been touched by human hands. But for this reason, at least in NJ where I live, I never find any I can trust to be pesticide and road-waste free. These gorgeous plants, growing deep in the old-growth forest, were clearly untouched and safe to eat.

Tasty young wood nettle
Despite their name, wood nettles still sting, especially the older plants. As I was hunting for morels that day, I didn't have any gloves. For that reason, and because the shoots are more tender and flavorful anyway--I avoided any plants over about 7", and focused on harvesting the little ones. I still got stung, sometimes enough to make me walk away and continue my search for morels for a good 15 minutes, till the sting subsided. As Thayer (in his book, the Forager's Harvest) says, it is best to only touch the stems with your tough finger-tips. The worst stinging happens when you accidentally brush the plant with the soft skin on top of your hand, or inside your wrist.

I have had this recipe on my mind for some time, and I rushed home to make it. It's really, really good. It's guilt-free comfort food, a perfect balance of vitamins from the nettles, protein from the quinoa and cottage cheese, calcium from the nettles and the cheese, and minerals from the mushrooms. By replacing some of the cheddar with fat-free cottage cheese (another superfood), we up the nutrition and reduce the fat further while still keeping the oozy cheesy, gooey-ness factor.

Next time you get stung by a weed in your garden, whip this up for dinner, you won't be disappointed!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What's in Season? 9 Popular Wild Edibles of Mid-Spring

The mid-Spring season(April & May) is a great time to get into foraging in the Northeast US. Some of the most popular wild foods are at their peak right now, from the easy to find and ID dandelion, to the time for the famous, elusive morel mushroom.

Before I begin, I want to reiterate the ground-rules. Proper identification is the responsibility of the harvester. I am giving you clues and tips as to how I identify things, it is your job to confirm them with reliable sources to your own satisfaction. If you are ever in the slightest doubt about a plant or mushroom--don't eat itAlso, don't harvest edibles from areas that may be contaminated. This would include areas that may have been exposed to pestasides, fungasides and weed-killers, areas near highways or busy streets, areas that may have had industrial or chemical run-off, and areas frequently trafficked by people walking their dogs. Finally, this guide is for Spring (April & May) in the Northeast, only! That is to say, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and north to Ontario and Quebec in Canada. What grows in your spring might be totally different. Even in the Northeast, remember to factor in "early" and "late" spring conditions.

So without further ado, I present: 9 popular wild edibles of Mid-Spring! 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preserving the Flavors of Spring: Ramp Compound Butter Recipe

Making herb-infused butter is a centuries-old practice. In the days before refrigeration, hot-houses and airplanes to bring us food from across the globe, butter was used to preserve the flavors, medicinal benefits and nutrition of vegetables and herbs.

Today, it's a great way to preserve the fleeting flavor of ramps, which are only found for a few short weeks in the spring, in only a very small area of our planet, and which--so far--have not been cultivated.
Ramps: at one time the first green available after  long
winters; the flavor captures the essence of spring.

Herbed butters, called compound butters, are a favored tool of chefs, restaurants & gourmands. In fact, the most famous compound butter is called "Butter à la Maître d’Hôtel" because it was a secret ingredient hotels used in their food to entice the wealthy to keep coming back for more.

A little dollop is wonderful on steak, steamed or broiled with fish, under the skin of chicken or turkey, or just spread on toast. Over time, the rich, herbal flavors completely saturate the butter, which, when melted, seeps into every crevice of meat or flake of fish, to really infuse the taste and aroma.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sandy Aftermath, and the 2013 Mushrooming Season

One of my best hen-of-the-woods trees, downed in hurricane Sandy
Most likely the mushrooms will continue to fruit

There has been a lot of talk on Northeast foraging boards about the damage and aftermath of hurricane Sandy, and it's effect on the 2013 mushrooming season.

In this region, 2012 was generally regarded a boom year for the "chicken mushroom" or "sulfur shelf" (Laetiporus sulphureus & cincinnatus); and this may be in large part due to damage from Irene in 2011. Laetiporus species can be either parasites or saprobes (decomposers) on trees and logs. They generally can't get enough of a foothold to fruit on living trees, unless the trees are weakened through other environmental factors, such as insect or human damage; but even if not fruiting, the mycelium (the actual organism that makes the mushrooms) can be present, and just waiting for the right time. . . like if a hurricane knocks the tree over.

Though this tree is very decomposed, chicken mushrooms can be found on trees that have just fallen,
and even on living, weakened trees. The year after a hurricane is likely to be very productive.

Oyster mushrooms, like these, generally don't appear till the
tree has been dead for some several years.  

So now with trees down from two hurricanes, 2013 should be an amazing year for the chicken mushroom. And as those trees begin to decay over the next few years, even more decomposing mushrooms should be able to move in. It may take 5 years or more, but we should see a rise in oysters (Pleurotus species), pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme), dryad's saddle (Polyporus squamosus) & more.

Parasitic mushrooms may or may not
continue to fruit after the death of their host tree. The Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa) is one of the most popular edible parasitic mushrooms, and I have seen it continue to fruit on tree stumps that have clearly been dead for many years. In fact, some of the most abundant fruitings I have seen have been on stumps, this is because the mushroom can also become a saprobe, decomposing the tree.

On a related note, all my best Hen trees came down in Sandy. This is probably due in part to the parasite causing rot in the "butt" (base) of the tree. With a weakened core, the oaks weren't able to withstand the force of the winds, and split at their base. (See the above photo).

Honey mushrooms go right on living,
well after the death of their hosts.
Another group of parasites, the voracious honey mushrooms (Amarilla species), are also unlikely to be effected by the death of their hosts. They continue to fruit on fallen trees for a few years, and they spread most often through underground rhizomes that can extend 50 or more feet--so the deaths of a few trees won't halt their advance.

That said, the majority of gourmet mushrooms neither parasites nor decomposers. Morels, Boletes (including the King Bolete, or Porcini) and Chanterelles are all mycorrhizal, meaning they living in symbiosis with trees. With the death of the tree, the mycelium may die and immediately cease fruiting, unless it has symbiosis with multiple partners. (It's 2013, we don't judge). Even if the fungus survives, loosing one key tree may be traumatic enough to prevent it from producing mushrooms for a year or two.

So that's my take on the next couple of years for mushrooming in the Northeast--barring any further natural disasters, of course. I would love to hear what you think the future holds for foraging mushrooms.