Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Lesson In Plant Identification

I know I teased everyone last week with the promise of fiddleheads, but alas, I do not have any bounty to share. The sprouts we found at Onteora Lake last week turned out to be the sprouts of Christmas Fern, an inedible variety. We searched for other fiddleheads, but it seems that is the most common variety there. Ostrich Ferns produce the fiddleheads we see in the supermarket around this time of year. They are green, tightly coiled and have the remains of a brown paper sheath on them. The ones we found had many papery scales on them which caused me to do a little research before attempting to prepare them. I recommend using image searching first. I searched for fiddleheads and fern and looked through the image results until I found one that matched our samples. The name Christmas Fern was attached to the picture. I then used this excellent web site: Plants For a Future, recommended by Marti, to look it up. I have mentioned before, and stress again after this example, to always research your findings. I will continue to look for Ostrich Ferns this week. Now on with the foraging!

This week Amy, Alec and I attacked the O&W Rail Trail in Hurley, NY. We started at the end of the paved section on Route 209 in Hurley, NY, which continues at that point as a gravel trail south to High Falls, NY. The section we covered went through a swampy area, and dense forest. We made a mental note to bring insect repellent next time as we were constantly inundated with small insects, and Amy even had the misfortune of having a Dog Tick try to masquerade as belly button jewelry! Always perform a thorough check for ticks after foraging. This one was harmless, but many are not. Here are some of the things we found on our walk.

Wood Violets, the most common type here in the Hudson Valley, are one of my favorite wildflowers. I was pleasantly surprised years ago to learn they were edible. The young leaves can be used both raw and cooked. Raw in salads, usually with other greens for more flavor since they are a bit bland, and cooked like spinach, also with something added to make them a bit more interesting. I use tops from the various wild onions that grow nearby for a bit of zip, and leaves from Garlic Mustard are a great combination too. Wash the leaves thoroughly and place in a pot with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, tossing and stirring until wilted. Great with a bit of vinegar. The flowers themselves are edible too. I love adding the flower heads to salads for color, along with Redbud Blossoms, Dandelion Heads (remove the green parts), and Mustard Flower Buds. You can also dip them in some diluted egg whites, coat with sugar, and let dry for Candied Violets. Makes a great garnish for a fancy dessert. Canada Violets, also quite common have the same uses. Finding both, would give you some nice color contrast, as they are usually white.

Solomon's Seal, is a common member of the Lily family. The young shoots, before the leaves unfurl can be cooked like asparagus. The root, which lays just under the soil horizontally, is where the plant gets its name. Each year a new section of the rhizome grows and sends up a shoot. The old sections remain intact, but marked with a scar, or seal from the previous years growth. It was said that the scar resembled the seal of Solomon. Don't confuse with False Solomon's Seal though, which differs by producing flowers and later fruit at the end of the stem, whereas Solomon's Seal produces multiple flowers along them stem as pictured here. To harvest, clean the dry leaves and debris from around the stem. Give a light tug on the plant to see which way the root points in the ground. Scoop your hand or a small digging tool under the section where the root should be, and lift out with the plant attached. They are not very deep and come out easy, but if you simply tug on the stem, it will break at the seal. The shoots can be just pulled without the root. These rhizomes, or tubers are edible, but only after boiling in at least three changes of water, maybe more, for a total cooking time of at least 20 minutes. If they still taste bitter, you'll know they need more. Let me define quickly what I mean by changes of water. Boil two pots of water, and add the food to be cooked to one of them. Keep the other hot. After boiling for a few minutes, drain and add boiling water from the second pot. Reboil more water for another change. Never add cold water to the food to be treated as this will set whatever you are trying to remove permanently.

Along the way we noticed signs of food to come in the next several weeks. Strawberry Blossoms mark the spot where we can return for one of our favorite wild fruits. Redbud Trees may provide attractive flowers for salad now, but later in the season they produce a great substitute for Snow Peas. Canes from Wild Black Raspberries are also very common and will be sporting the telltale white blossoms soon.

As always, please forage in a clean environment, well away from traffic, and other sources of pollution. Always research thoroughly before consuming, and don't over pick. See you on the trail!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Wild Relatives Of Our Supermarket Friends

Many of the plants I've sampled from the wild have analogues in the produce isle. Of course, there are a couple of plant families that dominate here, but I won't stretch that far and try to compare sunflower seeds to dandelion greens, even though they are members of the same family.

Carrots have a wild version. We know the plant as queen anne's lace. Tall flat white lace-like flowers. Don't believe me? Dig a root and give a smell. Carrot for sure, but a bit spicier smelling. Do yourself a favor though and don't eat the ones that are flowering. You won't like the dry, woody results. Instead, try to find some of the first year plants near these that haven't flowered yet. Queen anne's lace is a biennial, producing the flower in its second year.

Sweet potatoes, which are sometimes mistakenly called yams, are actually not related to potatoes. Real potatoes are members of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory vine. There are wild versions of sweet potatoes, but I have yet to find them here. Instead, work your way to the nearest wetland (p. c. speak for swamp) and look for arrowheads.
These water-loving plants produce tubers along their roots that cook up much like potatoes. Also water lilies produce the same down along the roots at the bottom of your favorite pond. Most of these wild potatoes are best before the plant blooms, or late in the fall long after the flowers have gone.

For you spinach lovers, there are several wild alternatives, but lambs quarters by far is the easiest to find. Once you see it here in the photo I am sure you are trying to remember all of the places you have seen it before. The youngest leaves are the best. Cooks just like spinach, which means it shrinks up a bit, so pick a lot.

One of my favorite ornamental trees, is also a source of a great substitute for snow peas. The redbud tree, as some of you may know, produces a pod that looks much like a pea pod, or small locust pod. If you pick these while they're young, they are great used like snow peas anywhere you would use the commercial variety. The flowers by the way, are also edible and although not very interesting in the flavor department, they look great on top of a salad.

Salsify, is one of those items in the produce market that you may not have tried yet. Commonly called oyster plant, it has an oyster-like flavor when cooked. The plant produces a carrot-like taproot which is what you see in the market. Salsify's other name is purple goatsbeard. There is a local wild relative of this in our area called yellow goatsbeard. Looking much like a tall and larger version of a dandelion, it has the same uses as the purple variety.

As always, be smart and know your plants, and keep away from polluted areas when foraging for goodies. Now why can't we have a northeastern wild coconut?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Early April in the Hudson Valley

I don't know how old I was when I started having a fascination for wild foods, but I can point to a few family activities that caused it. As far back as I remember we used to go pick apples every year at an orchard near Stone Ridge, New York. Always fun, except of course for the inevitable case of poison ivy that followed a few days later. The apples weren't wild, but still the idea of picking something from a tree, and eating it right there got to me.

Another major influence were the wild strawberries and blueberries we picked as kids. The strawberries grew near our home in Woodstock. There were several places where you could pick a dozen or two small wild strawberries quickly with little effort, but a short bike ride away was a meadow that my older brothers Lee and Paul called Sergeant's Field. You could pick a few quarts of the local delicacy there.

The blueberries came from Ice Caves Mountain, near Ellenville in the Shawangunk Mountains. Ice Caves used to be a privately-owned mountain top tourist-trap, but has since become a forest preserve, similar to other Shawangunk Mountain preserves Mohonk, and Minnewaska. Huge blueberry bushes were there. Or, at least they seemed that way to a little kid. Even though I picked the berries with the rest of the family, I never really developed a love for them. I will eat them in muffins and pancakes, but rarely just plain. Still, I was amazed that something that everyone craved came from the wild, and not a store.

It was then that I started to notice the foliage around our house. We had both woods, and a lawn, and something in-between. Wild blueberries, black raspberries, rose hips, beech nuts, wintergreen, wild carrot, spearmint, chives, milkweed, these were some of the plants that I learned to recognize with some help from my mother.

When I was 16 I think, I was away at scout camp one summer and decided to take a wilderness survival course. We learned many of the plants that I already recognized and a few more. solomon's seal, arrowhead, and groundnut to name a few. We lived for two days on wild plants, hand-caught trout, and frogs legs. From that point on, any time I saw a wild plant I didn't recognize, I had to know what it was, and what it was used for, if anything. Even the inedible ones fascinate me sometimes.

So, let's get seasonal! First though, a disclaimer: I don't recommend eating anything without checking a good field-guide, or other reliable resource. A good book for beginners is Peterson's Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Also, the Euell Gibbons books are a good read, but a little dated. Be smart! Start with the easiest to identify. With mushrooms for example, the easiest to start with are varieties that can almost never be mistaken for anything else, like puffballs, chicken mushrooms, or morels. Read about dangerous plants in the guide, and learn to recognize them. Also, plants that grow near toxins, tend to absorb them. Try to pick well away from busy roads, and other areas where the hustle and bustle of our day to day lives has had a negative effect on the soil, groundwater, and air.

Amy, Alec, and I took a short trip up to Onteora Lake in early April. I was armed with some ziplock bags, Amy with her camera, and Alec with his sense of humor. After detouring the badly flooded trail leading from the parking lot, and dealing with the loudest chorus of spring peepers we had ever heard, we hit the main trail in search of nature's prizes.

Almost any time of year in the woods of the Hudson Valley, you can find wintergreen growing on the forest floor. You may also know it as teaberry, checkerberry, or boxberry. The picture above is just one cluster of hundreds we found under last season's fallen leaves. The red berries are edible, and carry a distinct wintergreen flavor. The leaves can be dried and brewed for tea, or chewed for flavor and the remnants discarded. This plant is named for the presence of the classic wintergreen flavor and scent, caused by the presence of methyl salicylate. Commercial wintergreen flavor is synthesized now, but is chemically equivalent to the natural source. This tiny plant could never produce enough for practical use, but is interesting to the casual forager.

The berries can be used in salads, or with lamb dishes. They add color and flavor to any dish, but are a bit dry when eaten plain. The leaves should be dried before using for tea.

There wasn't anything else that day for harvesting, but I took note of something for a future trip: Last season's flattened fern fronds. After the snow is gone, these are markers for where the fiddleheads will sprout forth, just waiting to be picked and sauteed by yours truly! A quick dig in the leaves around the base of some fronds revealed these sprouts pictured here, almost ready to spring forth. I would imagine that they will be up and ready for harvest next weekend. Stay tuned......