Sunday, November 27, 2011


We like to make many herbal teas, or tisanes, from the wild foraged plants we find. One of Robert and Gillian's favorite is sassafras tea, which is actually a boiled decoction made from the roots. The flavor is similar to root beer, and tastes good liberally sweetened with honey.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a native American deciduous tree that grows primarily on the east coast from Maine to Florida, and partially into the plains to Iowa. It is very abundant here in Connecticut, and easy to forage in large quantities. It likes wet soil and is found in old fields, along field edges, and in urban parks. It spreads by producing roots and sapling clones underground, so one mature tree will be surrounded by hundreds of small saplings. The tree is easy to identify in the winter by looking for these many saplings surrounding the mother tree. The bark is green on the small saplings, but as the trees get larger you can see the reddish coloring between the furrows of the grey bark.

flowers and new leaves
In the spring, sassafras produces tiny, yellow five-petalled flowers as the new leaves unfurl. There are three distinct leaf shapes growing on the sassafras tree- an oval, a mitten-shaped leaf, and a triple-lobed leaf. In the summertime, sassafras will produce hard, black berries on a red, cup-shaped stem that birds like to eat. The berries are not abundant, and we rarely ever see them. Late in autumn, the sassafras leaves turn into a lovely rainbow of red, orange and yellow before falling.

Filé powder
Two parts that we use are the dried and powdered leaves, and the roots. To use the leaves, pick them when green and dry them in a dark place. Robert then powders them in the coffee grinder to make filé powder, used to thicken stews like gumbo. Filé powder should not be boiled, but stirred into a stew at the end.

cross-section of root
To gather the roots, we look for the many saplings that are about 2 feet tall. Robert will grasp the bottom of the sapling where it meets the ground and give the tree a slow, gentle pull. The root is brittle and often breaks, but sometimes he gets a few feet at a time. We then wash the roots to remove the dirt, and slice up the smaller roots, and shave off the outer layer of any thicker roots. The cleaned roots are very aromatic, and can now be dried or used fresh. We boil the roots in water for about 20 minutes to make a reddish-brown decoction that can be sweetened and drunk hot or cold. We have used a strong root decoction to make jelly and syrup, and Robert is fermenting a spicy beer with sassafras and spicebush berries right now. Sassafras is an abundant and favorite wild food for us.

I will mention the USDA warnings about a compound in sassafras, safrole, which is considered a potential carcinogen in massive quantities. Safrole is also used in the manufacture of MDMA. We are not that concerned, as we do not consume huge amounts of sassafras. Native Americans used the decoction of the roots as a blood purifier. Sassafras oil is used to scent cosmetics and in aromatherapy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review - Wild Berries and Fruits: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan

We own several great books about foraging and mushrooming, and are often asked which are our favorites. I will try to spend the non-productive winter months reviewing some of these great resources, and making recommendations. Most of these books are available on Amazon, some are available directly from the author as signed copies, some from the publisher, and many we get used from Alibris.
This is the book I reach for most often when presented with a ripe berry or fruit I am unfamiliar with. It covers a 3-state region in the upper midwest, but many of the fruits and berries found there are also found here in southern New England. This is my book of choice because of how it is organized: by the color of the berry or fruit. This simple, visual way of putting the book together makes for fast reference, and the overall small dimensions (4 1/2" x 6") of the book make it easy to carry out into the field.

Wild Berries and Fruits: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan  by Teresa Marrone

Photo of book coverThe identification process starts with the berry or fruit color, easily referenced and arranged by colors on a tab in the upper, left corner of each page. Other icons along the top of the text page include type of plant (is it a shrub, a tender leafy plant, a vine), how the leaves are arranged (whorled, alternate, opposite), the season when the berry or fruit is ripe, and a small map of distribution. The text then goes on to describe the habitat, growth, leaves, fruit, and season for the specimen, along with some look-a-likes and additional notes. The entire right page is a color photo of the plant, usually including leaves and ripe fruit, sometimes including a small, inset photo of the unripe fruit. Common and Latin names are given for each specimen. As a forager, the most important piece of information is the edibility of the fruit or berry, and that is clearly noted with an additional band next to the color tab indicating whether the specimen is edible, not edible, delicious, or toxic.

Photo of internal pages

leaves, stems, flowers
As an example, let's look at the strawberry pages. You find yourself a small, red berry out in a sunny field at your feet. Using the book, you start by looking in the red section, looking at the colored tabs on the upper left page. Use the large, color photos on the right page to find a plant that looks like the plant in front of you. Now use the clearly written text to verify the plant. The leaves section will describe coarsely toothed trifolate leaves on the end of a long fuzzy stem. The fruit section describes a heart-shaped fruit, and some of the visual differences between two different species of strawberry that may have been found. Check to see that your seasonal ripeness matches with what is described, and observe the habitat the plant is growing in. Read about any possible look-a-likes in the compare section, and read the additional notes that may describe the flavor of the strawberry. Also notice the additional band on the upper left corner, denoting that the wild strawberry is delicious. Using the additional ID information in the fruit section, I can positively identify the strawberries we found and photographed as Fragaria virginiana. Yum!

Also in this book is the useful introduction in the front. The terms used in the book are described, such as types of fruit (berries, drupes, pommes) and how the fruits are arranged (raceme, cluster, umbel). A calendar is included that shows when each fruit or berry is ripe. There is also an excellent desciption on how to use the book, taking you through all of the steps to identify and verify a plant. At the back of the book is a glossary of the botanical terms used throughout the book, an alphabetical index of the fruits and berries, and two pages of additional resources, such as websites and books.

Teresa Marrone has written several comparable books for 2 other geographical regions: Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, and for Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Depending on where you are located, you may be able to get a book better suited to your region. Teresa Marrone has also written several books on cooking with the berries and fruits of those geographical regions, along with books on cooking other wild edibles, game cooking, using a slow cooker, and camp cooking. A biography of her and her work can be found here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hen of the Woods Recipe - Hen Stroganoff

2011 will be a memorable year for us in our wild food education and evolution in regards to mushrooms. We finally took the step of joining a mushroom hunting club, Connecticut Valley Mycological Society, and we have learned something every week we have foraged with them. Climate conditions that may have started off bleak in the summer quickly turned into an ideal wet paradise in August with the rains from Tropical Storm Irene. Mushrooms were everywhere, and especially choice wild edible mushrooms were everywhere. We would go out in the morning with the intention of finding hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) in an old oak forest, and instead come home with six pounds of black trumpets (Craterellus fallax). Finally finding the masses of hen of the woods, also called maitake or sheep's head fungus, provided us with gallons of dried mushrooms, gallons more frozen in the chest freezer, and several pounds of fresh mushroom for dinners.

pores on the underside
spore print
Hen of the woods is identifiable by its appearance: it looks like a chicken's backside, all ruffled up. The many fronds are generally a creamy tan to grey, and have small , white pores on the underside. The fan-shaped fronds can be 3/4"-3" (2-8 cm) and overlap each other. Hens produce a white spore print. They can seem fibrous, but are wonderfully toothsome but tender when young. The stalks and core are dense. Some specimens can grow to be 50 ponds, but most we found were about 5 pounds each. Hen of the woods grows on bases of oak trees or stumps, often for several successive years at the same location. They are fairly common here in the Northeast, and we encountered some folks giving them away they were so plentiful this year. We stuffed breads, topped pizzas, boiled soups, and made tapenade from our finds, and here is a hearty sauce for potatoes, dumplings, or egg noodles.

Hen of the Woods Stroganoff                                makes about 4 servings

2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. hen of the woods, packed
1 c. vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 c. cream
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1/4 c. sour cream
1 T flour
1 T chopped chives or parsley

cooked potatoes, dumplings, or egg noodles

1. Heat the olive oil in a pan and sautée the garlic over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the packed mushrooms and cooks, stirring often until the mushroom starts to brown.
2. Add the cream and broth, and allow it to reduce by half, stirring often. Add the salt and pepper.
3. In a bowl, mix the flour and the sour cream together. Stir the sour cream into the mushrooms and cook 5 minutes, until the sauce is thickened.
4. Serve the sauce over the potatoes, dumplings or noodles, and garnish with chopped chives or parsley.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meeting Another Forager

It can be so rewarding to meet another wild food aficionado and talk shop, even more interesting to meet a published forager on a cross-country book tour. Let's add a gourmet dinner out at a nice restaurant made with local, fresh wild food that you have foraged for the restaurant, and the evening is complete. On October 2, 2011 we lived this reality when we chatted and dined with Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast and his website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. The dinner was held at La Laiterie in Providence, Rhode Island, and it consisted of passed appetisers and four courses, each containing at least one item we had foraged and contributed to the evening.

Hank is originally from New Jersey, and spent his summers on Block Island. He currently lives in Northern California, where the produce is different, the ocean is different, but foraging for wild food is still a passion. His book is broken into three main sections: plants, fishing, and hunting. There are recipes throughout, along with lovely personal stories and memories. We generally don't have time to fish, and Robert and Gillian are vegetarian anyway so we also don't hunt. I have accepted gifts of venison, and may consider taking up bow hunting in the future. The section of the book we found most interesting was on the wild plants, especially the seaside edibles like beach peas, glasswort, and rocket. He also goes over other plants like dandelion, nettles, sassafras, and elderberries. This is not a guidebook for foraging wild edibles, but a complete story of the experiences and passions of an avid outdoorsman and forager.

I had contacted the chef of Farmstead & La Laiterie about possibly foraging for this dinner, and Matt Jennings was very enthusiastic. He and Beau Vestal cooked up a fantastic menu, including Hank's requested quahogs in honor of his Block Island memories. We provided autumn olives, chestnuts, black trumpets, spicebush berries, rosehips, ramps bulbs, and glasswort. Some of the items were unexpectedly difficult to gather, due to Tropical Storm Irene that just passed through and devastated the coastal areas we use to gather several items. The dry summer also limited our ability to forage for wild grapes and autumn olives. We did manage to find enough for the dinner, but will have to wait until next year to forage them for ourselves.  Robert was unable to photograph the dishes, as the restaurant was rather dimly lit for ambiance, but I will say that everything was divine. My favorites include the candied spicebush berry, and the swordfish belly with the rosehip purée. Robert had an altered menu, with seaweed salad in place of the terrine, and white cheddar grits and hen of the woods mushroom sautée in place of the guinea hen. Both Hank and Matt Jennings reminded the diners that this was a unique feast, never to be replicated since the foods we ate that night were foraged that week from this geographic area, and cooked by wild food lovers and enthusiasts. It was wonderful! Here is a copy of the menu for the evening:

farmstead & la laiterie
The Forgotten Feast
A Wild, Sourced Dinner

Wild Mushroom Toasts, Moses Sleeper Cheese, Preserved Lemon Mostarda
"Boar ta della" Sandwiches with Olive, Wild Juniper, and Celery Relish
Chicken-Fried Chicken of the Woods, Waffle Strip, Bourbon Vinegar
Rhode Island Quahog Clambake Stuffies

Course 1 - Pasture & Knoll
Connecticut Pheasant Terrine & Rhode Island Rabbit Mousseline
spicy ale mustard, Concord grapes, American chestnut bread

Course 2 - Coast and Shoreline
Wild Spiced Swordfish Belly
rosehip purée, smoked ham ans sea lettuce dashi, periwinkles and sea beans

Coarse 3 - Woodlands & Forest
"The Hen" Pan Roasted Guinea Hen
hen of the woods, wild rice, pickled autumn olives & ramp bulb, egg yolk, horseradish powder

Course 4 - Sweet and Savory
Selection of Three New England Farmhouse Cheeses
candied nuts and spicebush berry
Peppergrass Ice Cream
warm, salted sassafras caramel sauce and biscotti

Our evening out was filled with warm conversations, delicious food, and a lovely display of mushrooms by the resturant's usual mushroom forager. Matt Jennings was interested in an ongoing relationship with us in regards to wild edibles, and we are considering it. This past year was such an unexpected loss for many of our favorite edibles due to the weather and climate, it makes us wary to make promises that we could not keep and obligation that we could not fullfill . We will have to see what the next season brings.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Autumn Olives 2011: Where are they?

speckled, ripe berries
Autumn olives (Eleagnus umbellata) are a common edible invasive species found in New England, growing from southeastern Ontario down to Florida and as far west as Arkansas and Wisconsin. It was brought from Asia to North America in 1830 for cultivation as an ornamental plant. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, up until 2006, it was commonly promoted as roadside erosion control shrubbery, wild bird food and cover, and frequently planted along roadsides and distributed to homeowners for landscaping and windbreaks. Currently, importation, propagation, and sale of autumn olive bushes is prohibited in many states.

The bush is spread by the seeds from the many berries, often consumed by birds. Autumn olive is a drought tolerant shrub that grows in full or partial sun in a variety of soil and moisture conditions along open woodlands, fields, grasslands, industrial areas, and disturbed areas. The bush has the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and grow quickly, thereby shading out competition. Cutting the bush will not kill it, pulling up the seedlings is the only eco-friendly method of eradication.

flower clusters

The autumn olive shrub can grow to 12 feet (3.7m) tall, and are often found in large clusters taking over an area. The alternate leaves are 1-3 inches (2.5-8 cm) long and egg or lance shaped. The tops of the leaves are dark green, and the undersides are densely covered in silvery scales. Autumn olives are often the first plants to sprout leaves in spring, and produce copious amounts of flowers arranged in bunches from the leaf axils. The flowers are light yellow or creamy white tubes that open to four petals, and are fragrant. Each flower will produce a single green berry speckled with silver scales. The berry bears a single, oblong, soft seed that is edible, and ripens to red in late summer or early autumn.

When ripe, the berries can taste either very astringent, or pleasantly sweet. Kids love that puckeringly tart flavor, and it is slightly reminiscent of ripe tomatoes. We have been eating them for years, and the berries are a super wild food. They contain outstanding amounts of lycopene, which is good for your joints. We use the berries in several recipes, like jam, jelly, fruit leather, wine, and ketchup. The berries freeze really well, which is great since they are usually so abundant.

Autumn olive ketchup
Which brings us to this year and the absence of berries in our favorite places. There have been several weather related conditions combining to destroy many of the berries. The spring was rather wet and late, then the summer was very dry. During the dry summer, many plants lost their fruits as they became stressed from the drought, like wild plums, grapes, and the autumn olives. When the deluge of rain came from Hurricane Irene to the northeast, it was too late for many plants, and some even toppled over once the ground became too saturated for the plant's roots to hold on. Any berries that had survived the dry summer now absorbed massive amounts of water and split open within a few days, and attracted bees and ants to the shrubs. We had a very difficult time to gather one gallon of berries that were not mushy, split messes, when we can usually gather several 5-gallon buckets worth of berries in an hour. So this year, no jelly, wine, fruit lather, or berries to freeze from our most abundant and favorite wild edible. Here's to next season!