Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Japanese Knotweed Recipe Roundup

It's coming . . . Japanese knotweed season! The winter season is still lingering here in southern New England, but early spring greens and shoots should start peeking up soon. Japanese knotweed is one of the invasive plants that naturalists dislike, but foragers can collect in great amounts without worrying about the plant population. When collecting, try not to accidentally discard any parts of knotweed; it has amazing regenerative powers and the ability to spread quickly, especially near waterways.

Here's a line-up of past recipes we have made using Japanese knotweed. And here's looking forward to testing out a few new ones!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


OK, let's identify and talk about the tisanes, starting from the top row, upper left corner. Most are infusions, and a few are decoctions. Infusions are made by steeping dried or fresh herbs in warm or boiled water to extract chemical compounds or flavors. Decoctions are actively boiled or simmered for a short period of time to extract flavors and chemical compounds from tougher plant parts like bark, roots, rhizomes, or stems.

First we have linden bracts, collected from linden trees (Tilia cordata or Tilia americana), often planted in parking lots as ornamentals. The tree grows in a pleasing shape and has lovely, fragrant blooms on the early summer that are attached to a lighter colored bract, which is a modified leaf. Once fertilized by bees and insects, the flower will develop into a small, fuzzy nutlet that persists on the tree for the rest of the year. Robert showed us linden flowers, as they are commonly collected in Hungary and the nectar of the flowers makes a very floral honey. We collect the bracts and dry them in loosely packed in large paper bags, shaking them every day to move them around, and opening the bags every few days to let a beetle or two fly away! The tisane is steeped in boiled water for 15 minutes, and lightly sweetened with honey to make a soothing and delicious drink, which both Robert and Gillian drink.

Next are yarrow leaves (Achillea millefolium). We use the leaves of common white-flowered yarrow, which grows prolifically along trails and in abandoned fields. We pick the fresh leaves to crush and use on minor scrapes and cuts, as fresh yarrow encourages clotting of blood. The leaves are dried in a dark place, and steeped in hot water for 15 minutes to make a slightly astringent tisane that can be useful in reducing mild fevers or as a digestive tonic.

Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) is a wild cousin of chamomile, with an added bonus of a pineapple scent! The flower cones look very similar to chamomile, but without the white petals. It is considered mildly invasive in North America, but this diminutive weed grows in places many other plants won't bother with, like compacted gravel drives, along trails and roadsides, and in general poor soil. We find large areas of it in the driveway at our local CSA farm and collect it with the farmer's permission. An infusion of dried pineapple weed is sweet all by itself, and good for gastrointestinal upset and gas. We collect mostly the flower cones by gently picking them off the plant, but the leaves are also fragrant and can be added to a tisane.

Many varieties of perennial mints (Mentha species) grow wild, and we love to stumble upon a patch while out in the woods or exploring abandoned fields. Sometimes we find a spearmint or a cat mint, but they all make fine, fragrant tisanes. Aside from the agreeable flavor, a mint tisane is good for nausea, indigestion, gas, mild fever, and headaches. Sometimes we make a very strong infusion and add it to Gillian's bath water for a relaxing soak (and a good-smelling kid!). We dry the mint tips and leaves in a brown paper bag in a dark place, shaking it around every day. We know of several mint patches, but will not bring any home to transplant, as mint can be a voracious spreader, taking over large swaths of a garden or completely filling a planter.

We don't collect too many elderflower heads (Sambucus nigra), because then we wouldn't get to come back to gather the berries later in the season! The fresh flowers are very fragrant, and can be plucked off the stems and added to pancakes or crepes. The infusion of dried flowers can be drunk hot for fever and mucous producing conditions of the upper respiratory tract like hay fever. You can use the cooled infusion as a gargle for mouth ulcers and sore throats as well. We hang the flower umbels of elderberry to dry, then store then in sealed glass jars.

Red clovers (Trifolium pratense) are a kid's favorite to eat, picking each tube-shaped flower off the flower head to taste the nectar inside. We collect the flowers before they turn brown and wilt, drying them in a paper bag. The infusion is brewed for about 15 minutes, and has a sweet taste. Red clover contains isoflavones, which are water-soluble chemicals that act like estrogens. Most benefits of red clover are realized through tinctures, so we just drink the tisane because it tastes nice.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a drink that many folks in the Appalachian areas of North America recognize and adore. It grows prolifically in southern New England as well, as we collect the roots and inner bark to dry, before simmering into a strong decoction. There have been over-hyped cancer warnings associated with the consumption of sassafras tea or decoction, but the government studies were flawed due to a need to ban safrole, a manufacturing component of the drug MDMA. A strong decoction of sassafras root can be used to make natural root beer. Sassafras is very fragrant in an almost spicy way, and we all really love the taste of a lightly sweetened, chilled sassafras drink in the summer.

The Mythical, Medicinal, Magic Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)!! Chaga is the sterile conk of a fungus that attacks birch trees; we find it on white, yellow, and black birches in our area rather often. There are many medicinal claims being made about chaga on the internet right now, talking about anti-cancer properties to life-extension, but I'm not sure if I believe every claim being made about chaga. I can tell you a decoction of chaga tastes really good, especially if sweetened with maple syrup and mixed with coconut milk into a chilled frappe drink. Overall, the flavor of a plain chaga decoction is similar to black tea. We simmer 3 Tbsp. ground chaga in one gallon of water for about 45 minutes, and reuse the grounds to make two or three more batches of decoction to drink before discarding the used grounds. In the spring, we tap a few maple or birch trees and use the fresh sap to simmer the chaga, reducing the sap slightly to make a naturally sweetened drink.

An infusion of nettles (Urtica dioica) in the winter is an iron boost for me, as I tend to suffer from chronic anemia. We gather the top 4-6 inches of nettles in mid-spring, long before they flower, by using gloves and scissors to avoid the sting. Once dried in the dehydrator on a low setting, nettles lose their sting and can be handled without protection, and stored in large glass containers. The flavor of a nettle infusion is pleasantly green and grassy, and can be drunk without sweetener. The 15 minute nettle infusion in boiled water is also good for stimulating circulation, relieving rheumatism, and relieving eczema. When the nettles are fresh and tender, we eat bucket loads of them, and they freeze well to use all year.

Finally we have some dried beach rosehips (Rosa rugosa), a common invasive along the coasts of New England. The hips of all roses are edible, but the beach roses produce very large, meaty hips that are relatively easy to collect in large quantities. Once the seed-like achenes are removed from the halved hips, along with the irritating inner hairs, we dry the flesh of the hips in the dehydrator. A 20 minute decoction of the hips produces a sweet, fruity drink that is helpful for chronic diarrhea and stomach weakness. Rosehips also make a wonderful tart jelly filled with vitamin C, and the petals of beach roses are exceptionally fragrant and useful in syrups.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Winter Tisane Party

No matter how we line them up, set them out, brew them up, winter is a great time for a tea party, or in this case a tisane party. Tisanes are herbal teas, an infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material into a drink that usually does not contain caffeine. With the jars full of dried herbs and plants we have collected over the year, we managed a grand tisane tasting of ten brews, sweetened, unsweetened, and blended through a rainbow of colors and assortment of flavors. Can you take a guess at the the line up?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Beach Plum Recipe- Beach Plum and Hickory Nut Quickbread

Deep in the winter, when everything is under more than two feet of snow, we start getting bored with the short days, long nights, and lack of outdoor recreation. None of us are snow bunnies, and we already took our yearly vacation. Our meals made with preserved, dried, or frozen wild foods are the only thing that remind us of the bounty that awaits us next season. Looking into our freezer, we can find frozen greens like dandelion, garlic mustard, nettles, and ramps; berries like autumn olives, wineberries, cranberries, blueberries, and huckleberries; fruit like beach plums and feral pears; mushrooms like honeys, maitake, and sulfur shelf; and nuts like black walnuts and hickory nuts. We can still eat a wild food everyday when we dip into our assorted stores and pantry.

The annual Willimantic Food Co-op birthday party took place this past February 14th, and we contributed one of the 35 birthday cakes for their event, making a Beach Plum and Hickory Nut Coffee Ring, but had a bit of batter left over and made it into quick loaves for us to eat at home. I had some lightly stewed, unsweetened beach plums in the freezer, along with the hickory nuts. In the summer when we picked the cooler full of beach plums, after pitting them by hand, I made jelly from the majority of the fruit, and then took the rest of the fruit and cooked it for 5 minutes then placed it in containers to keep in the freezer. When I make this recipe, the thawed beach plums are juicy, so I
strain them to keep from adding too much liquid to the batter and use the leftover juice to make an electric pink/purple glaze by whisking in some powdered sugar, or you could use the leftover juice in some seltzer or over ice cream. This recipe could also be used to make muffins or a 12" bundt ring.

Beach Plum and Hickory Nut Quickbread     makes 2-8" x 4" loaves or 12 muffins

2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp.  baking soda
1 c. buttermilk
2 large eggs
1/4 c. butter melted, or 1/4 c. oil
1 c. strained, stewed beach plums
1/2 c. chopped hickory nuts
powdered sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 400º F and grease 2 loaf pans or line muffin tins with papers.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl.
3. Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and oil or melted butter in another bowl.
4. With a wooden spoon, mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined, some small lumps may remain. Gently mix in the drained beach plums and hickory nuts.
5. Divide the batter into the pans and bake at 400º F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350º F for 10-25 minutes, until the muffins or loaves are finished. Test by pressing the tops, they should spring back lightly. Cool and remove from pans.
6. Optional: Use the leftover juice from straining the beach plums and whisk it into powdered sugar to make a thin glaze to cover the tops of the loaves or muffins for added sweetness.

I know the bread looks a bit weird and blue/purple when sliced, it is a reaction from the super acidic plums and the alkaline baking soda!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sharing, Teaching, and Tagging Along

We get asked very often by new foraging enthusiasts and beginners if we give classes or can let someone tag along with us while we are out foraging. We don't offer formal classes for money like many other foragers, or private lessons about foraging for a few reasons I would like to explain. 

Gillian eating wild carrots, NOT FOR BEGINNERS!
1. Liability. This is a big one for us, as we are not willing to be sued for someone's reckless behavior and bad identifications when they try foraging. Different people can have different reactions to any new foods, and we are not willing to take responsibility for this risk. Poor and hasty identifications by beginners who are very determined to eat wild foods terrify us. Liability waivers are essentially useless and offer no protection.

2. Local land use laws. In Connecticut specifically, there are statutes that do  not allow the removal of plants or natural materials from state land for any purpose, including pine cones for your kid's crafts! While we do not agree with this particular law, we cannot take people out into public lands to collect wild foods. We hike and forage on private property of friends and family in most cases, and do a bit of "roadside foraging" along lightly traveled dirt roads for berries or mushrooms.

We are also wary of sharing "our spots" with strangers. We would just hate to return to a ramps patch that has been pillaged for commercial sale, or trash strewn about in the woods left behind by someone with whom we shared some foraging fun and secrets.

3. Foraging is not a group activity. This does not apply to teaching, but to actual harvesting. If we are out forging with a few people who are just tagging along to learn and come across a beautiful maitake mushroom, how would we fairly share it? If we come across a small patch of 100 ramps with a group of 10 people, how could we possibly collect in an ethical manner? Taking 10% or less of a wild food is how we collect for ourselves, so that patch would yield 1 single ramp per person to stay sustainable. Sustainability is not of an issue when it comes to collecting invasive species, which we strongly encourage. 

4. Our foraging time is our family time. Both my husband and I work, and our daughter is in elementary school all week. When we hit the woods, we are spending quality time together as well as searching for edibles. We meander on obvious paths and take many detours to indulge our daughter's interests in rocks and to build fairy houses, and Robert spends lots of time taking photographs from many angles of several specimens. We are enjoying our day and time together, and sometimes we do go out with friends, but even then it is still our leisure time.

We are willing to work through and with groups, farmer's markets, food co-ops, educational groups,  or nature centers that share our values on education and conservation, and look forward to signing up for more public opportunities for teaching. We have in the past worked with Flanders Nature Center to give a short program on mushroom hunting for beginners, which included a slide show and a short hike. We taught some members of the COMA mushroom group about basic foraging at their annual Fungus Fair event. Our other mushroom club, CVMS, has several public events each year where we display mushrooms collected by club members and we discuss their names and edibility, including the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. At the Coventry Regional Farmer's Market, we gave a short walk around the grounds during their Fungi and Forage weekend market, discussing many edibles like grapes, nettles, and hazelnuts at the edge of the market field. Much of our experience has come through taking paid classes and walks with educators in our area of New England, like Wildman Steve Brill, Russ Cohen, Gary Lincoff, and Blanche Derby. We are happy to recommend trustworthy foraging instructors that we have walked with, and direct interested individuals to their websites.

This blog, which has always been and will always be free to anyone to read is our main sharing tool right now. We take many, many photographs of plants and fungi to make sure they are clear, and spend hours researching plants to share information on their edibility. We spend even more hours writing, testing, and photographing recipes made with wild foods. We have purchased over 70 books on wild edible plants, field guides, mushroom identification guides, and forager's stories, filling our bookshelves with information at our fingertips. We will continue to purchase books, because we are always learning and I like to have multiple sources of information, as well as to support our fellow foragers.

In spring of 2016, we will have our own book published, focusing on the safest and tastiest wild edibles a beginner or family can start their foraging adventures with. We believe foraging is a fantastic family activity, even if it is for a few berries growing along the fence in the backyard or the weeds growing between your tomato pants in the garden. We also believe in sharing the knowledge of wild foods, and will continue to use this blog and the upcoming book, along with a few sponsored public events, rather than private tours, to share our experiences and adventures.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Wild Smoothies

One benefit of putting up the wild foods we harvest is that we are able to use many of the ingredients when they are out of season. Drying, freezing, and canning wild food provides us with a full pantry of berries, greens, and powders to use in everyday food preparation. We really do manage to eat wild food every day, even in the middle of winter with more than a foot of snow on the ground, like there is today! Gillian loves making smoothies for breakfast, and we finally saved up enough money to purchase a really good Vitamix blender, so she gets smoothie duty every morning, coming up with combinations using frozen berries, honey or agave syrup, bananas, and a splash of juice or almond milk since we don't drink much cow's milk. Robert tends to make more complex and adventurous smoothies, using dried powders and sometimes fresh greens and  a touch of cayenne.

Autumn olives are our favorite invasive berry to collect in great quantities. They freeze very well, make lovely jelly and fruit leathers, cook down into excellent sauces and ketchup, and are very nutritious: full of lycopene and vitamins A, C, and E. The seeds, which are soft and edible, contain omega-3 fatty acids. Personally, I spit the seeds out because I don't like seeds in my fruit, but Robert and Gillian chew them right up with the ripe berries. With the blender, Gillian adds the whole, frozen autumn olives with bananas and lets it blend well enough that I don't mind drinking the pulverized seeds within the smoothie. Autumn olive berries get much sweeter after freezing, but we still add a touch of honey or orange juice to the smoothie.

We collect pine pollen and cattail pollen in late spring, drying it and keeping it in jars in the freezer to add bright yellow nutrition to breads, pancakes, and smoothies all year long. For this smoothie, Robert used pine pollen collected along the shoreline of Rhode Island, uncooked oats, bananas, and almond milk with a spoonful of honey for sweetness. Pine pollen has all 8 essential amino acids, minerals and is a powerful antioxidant, as well as a natural source of steroidal-type substances like testosterone, DHEA, and androsterone. This smoothie was wonderfully thick from the oats and sweet from the fruit and honey, one of my favorites.

Chickweed is one wild green we can sometimes find late into the fall and even in the winter if there isn't too much snow on the ground. It prefers cooler weather, disappearing in the hot summer, and re-sprouting in the fall from the seeds that fell in the spring before it died back. The flavor of chickweed is very mild and bit like the silk of ears of corn. We add it to salads and smoothies, tossed into soups at the last minute of cooking, and use it on sandwiches like sprouts. Chickweed doesn't dry or freeze well, so sometimes we just get lucky when finding it on a mild winter day and use it fresh. It contains vitamin A, B, C and a bit of iron along with other minerals and silica. While the light green color of the smoothie turned Gillian off, Robert and I both enjoyed this last little blast of fresh, green goodness before the harshness of winter set in.

This wild blueberry and huckleberry smoothie probably had some bananas and cranberry juice added. We picked the wild blueberries and huckleberries from the same patch of poor, acidic soil last year, putting our newly purchased blueberry rake to the test. The forest has a mix of low-bush and high-bush blueberries and huckleberries all mixed together, so we just kept them blended and made a batch of jam and froze the rest of the berries. While both berries appear very similar, taste similar, have similar amounts of iron and antioxidants, and are equally edible, you can tell them apart by checking the seeds. Wild blueberries have many small seeds spread throughout the inside of the berry; huckleberries have a ring of 10 larger seeds (botanically nutlets) arranged in a ring inside the berry at its equator. The rich, purple color is a good indicator of anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Wild blueberries and huckleberries also contain high amounts of fiber and maganese as well vitamin K and C. This smoothie was sweet and delicious, one Gillian's favorites, letting us know we need to pick more wild blueberries and hucklberries next year for the freezer!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cattail Griddlecakes with Fresh Oyster Mushrooms for Breakfast

After watching a TED talk given by Sunny Savage, a wild food forager currently living in Hawaii on the island of Maui, we have been inspired to follow her mantra of "Eat a Wild Food Every Day". She advocates incorporating wild foods into your daily diet by just adding a little bit at a time to start, increasing the nutrition of any meal. We agree, and have been following this idea for years, adding nutrition, color, and interesting flavors to normal meals everyday. For us, it is second nature to reach into our stores of frozen, dehydrated, pickled, or jellied wild food stores to add something we foraged ourselves to a meal. Adding frozen wineberries to smoothies, cooking a soup with dried wild mushrooms, making pasta with dried and powdered nettles, or grinding garlic mustard seeds into spicy mustard is something we do nearly every day.

We were gifted a mushroom growing kit for Christmas, and promptly got it going, watching as the tiny oyster buttons grew larger the more we watered them, and finally harvesting the clump for breakfast this morning. 

The cattail griddle cakes were made with the male flowers of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia), gathered last spring before they produced their pollen. We go out in tall boots to snap the cattail flowers off the stalks, and bring them home to clean. The top portion of the flower is the male section, and can be easily pinched off the slim core into flaky bits that have a mild corn-like flavor. The  male flower parts freeze really well, portioned out into 1 cup containers, the perfect amount for a single recipe of griddlecakes. The lower, female section of the flower doesn't flake off like the male portion, but can still be steamed for a few minutes and chewed like corn on the cob, although you don't end up with a lot of actual material to chew. If left to mature, the male portion of the flower will produce the pollen that falls to the lower female portion of the flower, then the male flower falls apart and falls away, leaving the female portion to mature into the typical, brown cattail stalk that turns to fluff in the fall as the mature seeds are spread.We also gather the pollen from cattails later in the spring by snapping the pollen-filled male portions off into a bag, then shaking the bag vigorously. Then the pollen in sifted a few times to remove debris and small bugs, before being lightly dried and stored in the freezer to add to pancakes, biscuits, or smoothies.

A little more mature, male part on the top