Jun 272012
 

If you know me then you know I love food. And if you follow my blog or have ever met me you might know that I’m especially fond of wild food, and, if possible, even more fond of sharing it with others. There is something so magical, so primal and so deeply healing in going out to a wild place and foraging for food. Whether at a far away and remote mountain top or in a city park there is always something edible and delicious to be found growing freely (and free!), serving as a delicious reminder that food is all around us, constantly growing, shifting, changing and always offering a tantalizing taste of something once forgotten, possibly foreign but oh so natural all at once.

On Being a ‘Foodie’

My friends often describe me as a ‘foodie’, a title that makes me feel both fond and slightly disdainful to be associated with. The word ‘foodie’ often conjures up images of quasi-intellectual yuppie-hipster types with wannabe food critic tendencies, consuming pretentious foods with even more pretentious attitudes. And yes, maybe there is a bit of truth to this. But underneath the big shades and big words often lies the core of the foodie, a genuine lover of food. Someone who sees a meal as more than just fuel for continuing an already too fast paced day. While foodies are often associated with enjoying abstract and complex meals they are just as likely to enjoy simplicity as well; eating a whole apricot or a slice of melon, for example. For a foodie these ‘meals’ become symbols of something pure, wholesome and wholly good. Because the foodie often has an interest in where their food comes from and how it was produced it’s likely that the apricot is at the peak of ripeness or the melon is perfectly sweet and balanced. When these foods are at their peak, they need no fancy frills to make them better. The good foodie knows this and uses this knowledge effectively. When a peach is, perhaps, just a little under ripe, the knowledgeable foodie might split it in half and grill it to caramelize the developing sugars, maybe adding a drizzle of honey to further enhance the peachy goodness. Rather than view these tendencies as pretentious, one can view them as tools for connecting with something we do everyday: eat. They are powerful ways to transform what is too often an automated and thoughtless process into an enjoyable, sensuous and healing ritual.

On Accessibility

More often than not I think fear plays a big role in keeping people from enjoying wild foods. While there are certainly many factors that may keep one from enjoying wild and wonderful foods, the fear of things foreign seems to be a recurring theme. Being a foodie, it’s true that I’m more open to ‘different’ flavors; going past the usual salty and sweet I often cook with ingredients ranging from bitter to sour and everything in between. I think many people fear things that don’t taste like either chips or ice cream. There is so much involved here and on so many levels: genetic components, memories and emotions associated with certain tastes and foods, fear of change and of things that taste different. So much goes on when we eat that we don’t even realize. Which brings me to accessibility, making wild foods accessible for those that may not have ever had, or even thought of having, something from the wild. I believe, mostly because I’ve seen it happen countless times (including with myself!) that tastes can change. It may take time but after a time, what often may have once felt harsh begins to mellow out. Flavors that were once viewed as intense become intense cravings and one may begin to desire more, becoming more adventurous by the meal. Of course, we don’t just go from eating from a box to eating a diet of bitter summer dandelion greens in one fell swoop, at least not often. This is why, for those new to foraged goodies, I like to find wild foods that have some element of similarity to more modern-traditional foods. It’s approachable and respectful to both the person eating it and the plant, often resulting in a wild food convert and a lot less waste of unwanted and abstract wild foods.

Minty Things

For the month of June the Wild Things Round Up is featuring Mint and Mint family plants (Lamiaceae). I’ve pretty much been a lifelong foodie, so it might come as a surprise to you that I only recently learned to love Mint (Mentha x piperita). I was never one to love, or even like, minty things. You can take all my York peppermint patties and Life Savers, I’ll keep the chocolate, thank you. I started to enjoy mint slowly, mostly out of what I felt was a necessity. Many (including myself) found it odd that I was “the herbalist who doesn’t like mint”. The first mint that I really learned to enjoy was Spearmint, much less ‘cold’ and spicy than its close relative, I found the liveliness of Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) to enliven my mind and ease my often rumbly belly. As I delved into Mints I found that a sprig or two of fresh Peppermint went rather nicely with a tannin rich black tea, cutting away some of the bitter and adding a non-caffeinated and much needed pep to hot, humid days. Bit by bit my taste started to change and I found myself adding fresh mint to much more than tea. It was great with rich meats, cutting the fat and adding a sparkle of cool energy. It was great chopped fresh over summer berries, aiding their cool nature and playing delicately on their intense sweetness. Nowadays I can even drink straight up peppermint tea, but I, more often than not, prefer it as part of a mix in tea.

Cat Tales

Cucumbers are a funny little vegetable. I can’t count how often I hear how bland they taste and before I gardened, I couldn’t agree more. Cucumbers often tasted of little more than plain water and I always found myself adding intense flavors to them to make them taste like, well, something. Then I grew my own cucumbers and to my surprise I realized just how much flavor a good cucumber can have all on its own. Still, it’s rather rare to get those perfectly perfect cukes and more often than not they need just a little something to jazz them up. Not much mind you, just a little enhancement to emphasize that wonderful cooling and mildly sweet flavor. A little vinegar and oil with a touch of salt and pepper and maybe some fresh chopped mint makes a wonderfully simple and cooling salad on a sweltering day. In fact fresh mint is a near perfect addition to cucumber salad: aromatic and slightly spicy to balance the sweetness of the cuke and the richness of the oil. Patience! I can hear you now “but I thought this was about accessible wild foods?” And so it is. Let me tell you about nature’s cucumber.

Cattails (Typha sp.) are a common and easily recognizable plant by most people. A member of their own family, Typhaceae, they tend to grow in aquatic places, preferring to have their feel wet or at least moist. While there are a number of varying species, all Cattails can be used the same. Cattails are a great ‘beginner’ wild food not only because they are easily recognizable but also because they have many edible parts. The starchy roots can be boiled or baked to make a sweet, potato like food. If you have the time and energy, it can even be milled into a nutritious flower. The mature male flowers, producing the recognizable brown hotdog like appendage, produces a lovely deep golden pollen that can be added to breads, pancakes and the like. But my favorite part is the early spring shoot which is sweet and crunchy and most comparable to a flavorsome cucumber. Abundant and widely available across the country this wild vegetable can be eaten both raw and cooked and made into a number of delicious meals. During the summer months, when the cattails are gaining speed and gathering energy to flower the shoots can still be harvested, just remove the outer sheath to reveal the juicy, crunchy inside (hint: it should be easily crunchable and not be difficult to chop, if it is, continue to remove outer leaves until you hit a tender core).

Natural Pairings

 

Cucumber and mint seem to go together like peas in a pod. Aromatic, slightly spicy and deeply cooling mint leaves are the balancing act to sweet, cool and crisp cucumbers. It’s also a relatively known summer meal, easily recognizable by foodies and non-foodies alike (read approachable). And just as these well known culinary delights are made for one another, so too it seems are their wild counterparts. Often found growing together, wild mint complements the sweet crunch of young cattail shoots quite perfectly. Add a dash of vinegar and a bit of oil and you have a wonderful cooling salad to accompany grilled fish or chicken. Most any vinegar will do though I am particularly fond of violet and rose petal vinegars as they add just an extra touch of coolness and flavor. The only vinegar I don’t recommend using is balsamic as it tends to overpower the delicate taste of the cattails (trust me, I’m a foodie). Add a little chopped fresh mint and voilà!

 

Minted Cattail Salad

4 cups cattail shoots, de-sheathed and chopped

4 Tb rose vinegar (or other vinegar)

5 TB Olive oil

¾ tsp Salt

¼ tsp. pepper

2-3 TB chopped fresh mint

Add all ingredients together and mix. Let marinate a few hours before serving with grilled fish or chicken.

Apr 152012
 

I love early Spring. Cool days mingle with warmer ones, light breezes tickle your body while bright perfumes flirt with your senses. Days are variable as are moods, full sun mixes evenly (or not so) with gentle rains that nourish the ground and coax it back to life. If there was a color to associate with spring it would likely be green. But those that know Spring, really know it, know that there is a beautiful spectrum of greens, from the deep dark greens of vinca to the light greens of budding maples to the mixed shades of green found on the native honeysuckles. I love green. It speaks of potential, of birth and rebirth. It speaks of desire coming to life, of newness, innocence and the continuation of a cycle that never dies, only sleeps for a time gathering its energies to release them all in full force. And just as I love the green of my surroundings so too do I love the green of my food. Traditional Spring foods evoke images of tender fresh peas, sweet and succulent and lightly dressed asparagus so full of flavor it hardly needs to be dressed at all. Perhaps a touch of lemon to balance the flavor, a splash of oil for richness and a sparkle of salt or just a plain old raw stalk so tender it almost melts in your mouth. Less traditional but equally delicious dock greens, with their slightly sour aftertaste and deeply nourishing nettles fill my kitchen with their wild green selves.

I love soups, they are infinitely versatile, nourishing and satisfying. They make a delicious first course for a fancy dinner but served with a wild salad and a hunk of sourdough (or a few hunks in my case) can make the centerpiece of a comforting meal. Spring soups are some of my favorites. Highlighting the greenness of Spring, they speak of nourishment and health. They are often more versatile than winter soups being delicious served both hot and cold. They live in a kind of in between world, one that whispers gently of life and vitality but contains remnants of a coldness not far in the past. They serve as a reminder of Springs fleeting nature and encourage you to take full advantage of what’s around you and for April’s Wild Things Round Up that’s exactly what I did.

One of my favorite soups is split pea with ham. Warming and filling it is a perfect mix of thick building energy and enlivening freshness. This year, however, I decided to try something new: a sort of wild pseudo split pea soup. The soup is a fusion of two distinct recipes. Recently I received a beautiful new cookbook (oh man do I NOT need anymore, but I love them!). It’s called Around My French Table by Dorrie Greenspan and I highly recommend it. As I was thumbing through the soups section I came across this interesting and unique take on a traditional French Spring recipe, peas and lettuce. Usually made with fresh spring peas and sautéed with onions and fresh young lettuce Mmme Greenspan turned this traditional recipe into a flavorful and unique soup. Hmm thought I. The beginning of something wonderful and unique and that I could call my own. So I thought about it and it came to me to try using Redbud flowers as a substitute for the peas and using a leftover ham hock and a few handfuls of dock to give it that nice Spring green color, Ham and Redbud soup was born.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is an early Spring flowering tree in the Fabaceae family. Related to the more common garden pea Redbud has delicious slightly aromatic and sweet flavor with a decisive bean-y taste. The buds taste quite different in different stages so I strongly encourage you to taste them and find out what you like best. Personally I like the open flowers the best but since there are few that are fully open at this point, I used a combination of both open and unopened buds. It’s extra work but if you have time it’s worth taking off the brown part that connects the various flower stalk of the flowers together, it has a strong bitter flavor. This soup is very mildly seasoned comprising mainly of pork stock with a little chopped preserved lemon, a touch of clove and lots of black pepper. Sweet and bean-y with an edge of bitter and a lot of wild energy I think you’ll really enjoy it. Best when served drizzled with a little fresh cream or a spoonful of crème fraîche. Make, share and enjoy!

Ham and Redbud soup—with dock!

1 onion

1 Tb. lard

2 qts. Water or broth

1 ham hock with a little meat if possible

3-4 handfuls of dock leaves (Rumex sp.)

3 small potatoes

1 clove

1 tsp. fresh black pepper

1 tsp. preserved lemon

Salt to taste

Slice the onion and sauté in the lard until soft and the pungency no longer makes you want to cry. Add the water or broth and the ham hock and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer with a lid for anywhere from 1-3 hours (the longer the more flavorful it will get). Add 2 cups of Redbud buds and the chopped dock leaves and continue to cook until the dock turns a bit dull in color. Remove the bone and the meat still attached, reserve in a bowl. Puree the soup with the preserved lemon and the clove and add salt and pepper. Remove as much meat as possible from the bone and put it in the soup. Serve hot or cold.

Mar 222012
 

I just finished reading this magical journey of a book: A Year in the Village of Eternity.

It chronicles the life of the author, Tracey Lawson, during her three years living in this beautiful mountain town in the heart of Italy. In Campodimele, the town of eternity and the place where the author made her three year home, the residents seemingly live naturally long lives with an average age of 95. Scientists, journalists and others have researched this town, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that contributes to the residents long lifespans. Lawson, after reading about the town and doing her own research decided she too wanted to know. She moved from her home of land and set up life in this little town of only 671 people. During her extended stay she learned much about the people, the culture and lifestyle of Campodimele. Indeed, instead of finding a single reason for the amazing longevity of the Campomelani, she discovered a beautiful, seasonal and natural way of living which all together contributes to the deep and real health of its citizens.

The book is divided into months in which Lawson describes the various seasonal and food related activities that occur during that time. Whether it’s the pig slaughter of January or the harvest of the little sour-sweet amarene cherries of July Lawson describes every facet of seasonal living in Campodimele in earthy, living detail.

Each month also contains recipes. Yes, real tried and true—authentic—Campodimele recipes. Many of them All of them sound delicious. Particularly delicious sounding to me was a recipe in the month of February called Tagne. When I first read about Tagne and then conceived of writing this post I had grand dreams of researching Tagne and getting all the history behind it to share with you lovely readers…well life doesn’t always work out that way. My several hour-long research into Tagne turned up nothing. So all information about this traditional dish is taken directly from Ms. Lawson and the residents she learned from in Campodimele. We just have to trust them.

So what is Tagne? Essentially it is a frittata with the eggs. Frittata without eggs? Yes, in Campodimele in a time of great poverty, eggs were reserved for special occasions and so the Campomelani devised this version of an eggless frittata. In Campodimele, Tagne is a species of Clematis (Clematis vitalba) that is chopped, boiled and mixed with a bit of flour, olive oil and salt. Where I live we don’t have Clematis vitalba nor do we have any Clematis in February (or March!) and so I thought to myself ‘why not Tagne with dock leaves?’ Dock leaves also called Yellowdock (Rumex crispus and obtusifolium) are a delicious, slightly sour green vegetable. Because of their high oxalic acid content I tend to eat them cooked only. So I tried it and voila…crisp but soft in the center, warm and green tasting with just the barest hint of sour from the oxalic acid all beautifully wrapped up in silky olive oil. I made mine with Hemlock needle oil but you can make yours with any conifer oil or even plain old olive oil (but trust me the dock goes really well with the woody flavor of conifers). So without further ado, my recipe for Dock tagne.

Dock Tagne

Five large handfuls of dock leaves

Few splashes of Hemlock or other conifer oil

Pinch of Salt, grind of pepper

3 tsp flour (I used a locally ground ‘half wheat’ but I imagine any would work, even gluten free flours. It’s just there to bind things a little).

Chop and then boil the dock for 5-10 minutes and drain in a colander. Run cold water over them to prevent further cooking and to refresh them, then squeeze out as much water as you can. In a bowl toss the dock with the olive oil, salt, pepper and flour. In a round frying pan on med-low heat form the tagne into a disc and fry gently until crispy on one side, then flip and fry the other. Makes a great first course or paired with a few slices of home cured meat or bacon and a piece of fruit, a lovely simple lunch. Enjoy!

Sep 272011
 

Walnuts, who doesn’t love them? How about Black Walnuts? I can’t believe I’ve spent so much of my life not enjoying this delicious wild (and free!) edible. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is a robust tree in the Hickory family, Juglandaceae, with alternate pinnately compound leaves and grey-black bark. In older trees the grey-black bark is deeply furrowed and the tree can reach heights of 138 ft making this tree both magnificent and beautiful. It is bisexual, meaning it has separate male and female flowers. This time of year the female flowers develop into its fruit: a walnut surrounded by a hard shell and a beautiful light green hull.

Juglans nigra fruits

Black Walnut as used in medicine can be traced back to at least the 17th century where it was employed in Russian folk medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine states that eating Black Walnuts builds strength. Juglans is an abundant and useful medicine that is still in use today. Modern herbalists employ the hulls and leaves (more precisely the leaflets) for digestive issues, low thyroid function and sometimes to kill parasites. This post, however, will focus on a too oft overlooked part of this incredible and versatile tree: the fruit.

As I mentioned above, the fruit which ripens around now, is covered by a hard outer shell (and I do mean hard!) which in turn is covered by a somewhat soft-fleshy husk. The husks are easy enough to remove and can be covered by oil, isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and used for medicine (more on that in a future post). Once the husks are removed many people suggest to let the nuts sit in their shell for a few days which matures the fruit and deepens the flavor. I have not yet done this but I intend to try it, let me know if you do!

So if this fruit is so spectacular, why is it so often overlooked? Perhaps it’s due to that hard shell I keep mentioning. In this microwave savvy fast-food society it’s east to see that it might be just a bit too much work for people. But listen up folks! The effort pays off, promise. Nothing can compare to the delicate and yet complex flavor that this nut offers. Somewhere between intoxicating perfume and deep earth this nut is the perfect accompaniment to, well, everything.

 So how best to crack open this  nut? I think there are as many  answers as there are people  who are willing to do it. One  popular method is to place  the hulled nuts in a sack and  run them over with a car.  Haven’t tried it but it sounds  promising. At this point I have  just done the slow and steady  method of beating them with a  hammer. As we begin to shed our leaves with the trees and begin our descent into warmer, richer and deeper foods that will nourish and sustain us in the coming cold months I particularly like it in this adaptation of a walnut cake. The original recipe was adapted from Gourmet magazine and I have further adapted it from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve adapted it to make it lower in the sugar and gluten department and of course we’re using wild walnuts in this recipe. Rich in protein and fat plus trace minerals like manganese, phosphorous and zinc this walnut cake is nourishing and even a little bit healthy. The jam can be anything but this time of year I especially like elderberry jam,
and if you’re lucky fig jam.

Cake 

1 1/4 cups walnut, toasted

1/2 cup honey

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Topping
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
1/2 cup elderberry or fig jam

2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

 

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, best if it has one of the cool, removable bottoms.

Pulse cooled walnuts and in a food processor until finely chopped. Cream butter and honey, then add eggs and vanilla. Add to walnuts and process until combined. Add flour, baking powder, and salt and pulse just until incorporated. Spread batter in cake pan.

Bake until cake is just firm to the touch and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.

Whisk lemon juice (if using) into jam. Spoon jam over cake.

Beat heavy cream with sour cream and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon over jam. Try not to eat the whole thing all at once.

Aug 292011
 

One of my favorite wild foods to eat are grapes and their leaves (vitis spp.) The grapes themselves are delicious, especially as a sauce for wild meats. I could do a whole write up on the grapes themselves (and will soon!) but for now the focus of this post is on the leaves. Wild Grape is a flowering dioecious (separate male and female fowers) vine in the Vitaceae family, found throughout the Northern hemisphere. Grape leaves have been eaten by many people throughout the world and are still consumed to this day. One of their most famous incarnations is as dolmas: preserved grape leaves stuffed with various vegetables and/or meats and served with sauces, often yogurt.

On their own, grape leaves have a kind of sourness to them that pairs well with bright citrus flavors as well as aromatic and spicy flavors. They are abundant and versatile and as such I love to find new ways to use them. Of course, old standards are sometimes just the thing you need and as we transition to a more cool autum I find myself desiring one of my favorite incarnations of grape leaves. That is to say stuffed, with a spiced meat mixture and cooked in a mushroomy-tomato sauce. Below is the recipe.

 

Stuffed wild grape leaves in tomato sauce

1 large onion

1 cup mushrooms

2 cups tomato puree

1 lb ground beef

1 egg

1 tsp salt

2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp coriander

1 tsp chopped preserved lemon (optional, but yummy!)

½ tsp black pepper

1 Tb lard, butter or olive oil

10-20 grape leaves depending on size

Pre-heat oven to 375. Halve the onion and chop it into slices, then dice the other half. In a skillet over medium-low heat sauté the onions in fat for about ten minutes, sprinkled with a little salt. Chop mushrooms and add, cook another five or so minutes. Then add 2 cups of tomato puree. Meanwhile, mix the ground beef in a bowl with the diced onion, salt, spices and an egg and the optional chopped lemons. Spoon some of the beef mixture into the center of each grape leaf and fold the sides and then the bottom and top towards the middle, forming a little package. Sometimes they stay together better than other times so if need be brush them with a little egg white mixed with water to make them stick. When all the  leaves are stuffed place them into the pan and spoon a little sauce over them. Throw the skillet in the oven and let cook for 30-45 minutes (depending on the size of the leaves).

(pictures soon!)