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Wild Violet

Wild Violet
Did you know that Wild Violet (Viola sororia) is Wisconsin’s State Flower?

I love this little flower, and it’s a good thing, because it grows ALL OVER my yard and property.  It is delicate and beautiful and it makes me happy to look at those sweet blossoms with their heart shaped leaves.  And they taste good, too.

The blossoms have sort of a nutty, raw-pea kind of flavor, and the leaves are just nice and mild.  I like to chop the leaves and put them in salads and fritters (my current-favorite way of using wild greens, recipe down below).  The flowers I’ll leave whole and put on top of salads and dips as an edible decoration. They make a nice presentation when bringing stuff for a pot-luck.

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These delicate, innocent-looking little plants grow very robustly, so I’m not worried about over-harvesting at all.  They are related to pansies and johnny jump ups, which are also edible flowers.  They grow around the edges of buildings and woods, where they get some shade for part of the day, and are happy no matter how much or little rain there is.

Okay, here’s the recipe for my current-favorite way of eating wild greens: Fritters!

  • 1 cup grated fleshy vegetable like sweet potato or zucchini.
  • 1/4 cup flour of choice (I like garbanzo bean flour)
  • 1 egg

Now here’s the fun part – chop up whatever wild greens you’ve got on hand, throw in about 1/4 cup (more or less, depending on taste) and mix it up good with the other ingredients.  Spoon onto a hot griddle with plenty of oil and flatten into a disc shape.  Fry until golden, flip and repeat.  These are delicious hot off the griddle or cold so they are great to pack in lunch boxes.

Enjoy!

 

 

5 Best Practices for Foraging

Here we go, Spring Foraging is about to come into full bloom!!  My plan is to feature one or two In-Season plants in each blog post from now until the deep, dark winter comes again.  To start us off, here is a list of Good Harvesting Practices to keep in mind.

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Don’t these look like very Friendly Foragers?
  1. First and foremost, before you eat a Wild Food, be absolutely sure of its identity, and Don’t Eat Something if You Don’t Know What it is.   (Go ahead, click the link, you won’t regret it) I often tell people that learning about Wild Foods isn’t hard, but it does take effort.  You can go to the grocery store and tell the difference between Lettuce and Cabbage, right?  Or Iceberg from Romaine Lettuce, right?   And if we were to confuse those lettuces at the grocery store, we’d still come home with food that is safe to eat.  That’s not always true in the wild, though……many plants have look-alikes and look-similars that will make us and our loved ones sick, so let’s be sure of what we’ve got.
  2. Get Permission.  If it’s not your own backyard, make sure you have permission to harvest.  On many local trails, parks and public land it’s perfectly fine to forage, but if you aren’t positive, make a phone call to be sure.
  3. Harvest from clean areas.  I like to be aware of whether the area has been sprayed with chemicals like herbicides and pesticides, and avoid those places.  In my county, most farmers use these things, so I’ll refrain from foraging near corn and soybean fields.  I have friends who employ a service to spray their lawns with weedkiller, so I don’t harvest from their yards, either.  I’m sure it’s not any different from what we find on conventionally grown foods in the grocery store….but…if I’m going through all this effort to find beautiful, nutritious Wild Foods, I’m going to make sure it’s organic, too.
  4. Harvest with the Plants’ health in mind.  We want these plants to thrive and keep growing so that we can continue to come to them for food and wisdom.  You’ll find a variety of ‘rules’ about How Much to pick – anywhere from 10% to 50% is what I’ve seen.  I don’t think any one percentage can be applied across the board.  A yard full of Dandelions would be hard to over harvest, in my mind, lol!!  I would say to be Mindful as you go, listen to your intuition, even go ahead and ask the plants themselves.  Be Friendly.  🙂
  5. Start Small.  It is a wise practice to eat ‘just a little bit’ when you are trying out new foods, whether they are Wild nor Not.  Everyone’s body is different, and you may be able to eat as much Chicken of the Woods as you want, but I know from experience that I cannot eat it at all.  (I’ll spare you the messy details…..)
  6. Okay, I know this is more than Five Best Practices, so consider this a Bonus: Have Fun!!  Get outside, enjoy the sunshine and the rain, take your kids and grandkids along, talk to the plants, listen to them, and enjoy the heck out of life every day.  Why not?

 

Tangents and Rabbit Holes

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Diving deep into Wild Food culture can land you in some really interesting places.  What started off for me as a cool way to get free food (foraging beats the pants off of Ultra-Couponing) has led me into some other very satisfying and creative endeavors. Here are some of my favorite tangents that foraging has led me to……

Botany: Well, you can hardly study Wild Foods without acknowledging some Botany, right? Knowing characteristics of Plant Families helps to narrow down the possibilities so we can more easily get to a positive ID.  A walk in the woods with my field guide has me looking up any interesting-looking plant these days.

Fermenting, Wine making, Cheese making: Successful foraging means you’ve got a bounty of wild foods, maybe even more than you can eat up.  You *could* share it with friends, but they *might* not appreciate it as much as you do…..so in comes Wine Making and Fermentation.  I could freeze those berries to make smoothies, but I prefer a nice bottle of blackberry wine, lol!  I can freeze or can fiddleheads and wild leeks, but lacto-fermenting them makes them SO delicious and even more healthy than they already are.  Cheese-making isn’t exactly a Wild Food thing, but once you start making wine and fermenting vegetables, it’s just going to happen…

Conservation: More and more I am finding myself talking and teaching about protecting plant and animal habitats.  We can’t very well forage or hunt if we destroy these things in the process, or allow others to destroy them with harmful practices.

Primitive Skills: Cordage and Willow Weaving are two new skills I’ve learned recently.  Eventually I want to try my hand at birch bark basket making, primitive fire starting, and gosh just all kinds of stuff……..

Outdoor fitness: Kinda comes with the territory, right? There’s a lot of hiking involved when we go looking for mushrooms, ramps, fiddleheads and berries!  Kayaking and canoeing are the methods we use to get Lotus Heads and Wild Rice.  And while we are spending all that time outside on trails and such, let’s try a little Geocaching, just for funsies……

Personal health: “Food is medicine”.  “You are what you eat”.  The more I learn about the foods I eat – not just the Wild Food – the more I feel empowered to keep myself healthy.

ChickoryFlower
Chicory….it’s just so darn pretty.

 

 

 

Tap, Sap, Syrup, Sugar

Boiling Sap
Boiling Sap, it’s mesmerizing to watch

The Sap Moon is full as I write this, and the Maple Sap is flowing.  We’ve got 40 taps out right now, and the First Boil happened March 24 when our sons came and spent the day in the sugar shack while we were out and about.  They turned 55 gallons of sap into 1.5 gallons of syrup – it was a good day.

Second Boil happened March 29 – hubby boiled 50 gallons of sap down to 5 gallons for making Wine – an even better day!

Third boil happened April 1 – hubby went out to the sap buckets and poured out the tiny bit of sap that was trapped under the ice.  It was super concentrated, VERY sweet.  We had about a quart, and boiled it to 259 degrees, then stirred it into a cup and a half of Maple Sugar!  First time we’ve ever made it, and it was very fun and satisfying.

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Maple Sugar Goodness!

I’m enjoying drinking some Maple sap straight from the tree – it’s really sweet!  I’m using it to make tea, and to flavor my coffee, too.

Jars of Sap
Clear, cold and delicious!

 

Did you know that you can tap trees other than Sugar Maples, and make sryup with them, too? Walnut, birch, hickory, sycamore, ash, basswood and butternut all have sap that contains about one percent sugar. And other types of maples can be tapped too, like box elders, silver and black maple. Sugar maple’s sap is The Boss, though, because it contains 3-5 percent sugar, so it takes less sap to make syrup.  I’ll bet a person could drink the sap from those other trees, though, and it would taste yummy…………

Wild Mushroom Soup

Wild Mushrooms
Oh, the heavenly smell of Wild Mushrooms!!

A friend recently served me some Mushroom and Brie soup, and it was so delicious I had to try making some.  The wild-foraged mushrooms in my freezer were starting to look sad, so I used them all up in this soup: Oysters, Crown Corals and Pheasant Back.  I looked up a couple of recipes online, and then made up my own.  That’s how it’s done, right?

1/2 cup chopped onion, 1 cup mushrooms – saute in butter, add 1T Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 Cup brandy.  Pour a quart of chicken broth over the mixture, add 1 teaspoon dried thyme and a clove of crushed garlic.  When the broth gets hot, stick the immersion blender in and blend until it’s as smooth as you like.  Then add 8 oz of cubed Brie (I took the rind off) and 1 cup of cream.  I stirred and stirred but that Brie never melted all the way through, so I ate it with soft chunks.  I kinda liked it that way.

Bowl of Mushroom Soup
See that little chunk of cheese in the middle of the bowl? It was a tasty treat!

Okay, so my soup wasn’t as good as my friend’s, but I had fun making it and it wasn’t terrible.  Plus I’m eating Wild Mushrooms in the winter, so it’s a good day.

 

Movies and Novels

This 2018-01-07 12.44.50winter has been savage, even for Wisconsin.  Long stretches of way-too-many-degrees below zero.  Too cold to enjoy being outside, but perfect for snuggling up with a good Story.  I’ve been hunting down books and movies that contain foraging, wild foods, botany and/or herbalism as part of the story line.  These are not ‘how-to’ videos and books, these are just regular movies and novels in which the characters are foraging mushrooms, eating wild foods, studying plants, and making herbal medicine.  These are just a few of the many Stories out there……

MOVIES

Now, Forager: This is a movie about a young married couple who sell wild mushrooms to high-end restaurants. The husband wants to go All In, ditch the apartment and travel the Mushroom Trail, and the wife wants to settle down, stop foraging and get a more stable job.  It’s a little bit sad, but it was a good story.

A Cry in the Wild: This movie is based on the young adult book  “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.  It’s about a teen boy who survives on his own in the wilderness after the small plane he was traveling on crashes.  It was made in the 90’s, it’s a little cheesy, but I enjoyed it.

Against the Wild: Another movie with some kids surviving a small plane crash, this time there’s a dog, too.  It’s terrible. I’m not kidding,   The acting was so bad it was painful, and I couldn’t even finish watching it.

BOOKS

The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon.  I’m not really sure how to describe these books.  It is my hands-down All-Time Favorite book series.  I’ve read most of the 8 books (9th one is being written) twice, and will probably read them again when the next book is finally published.  The main character is a WWII nurse who accidentally time-travels to Scotland in the 1700’s.  Herbalism, witch hunts, revolution, love, lust and everything else you’d want for an epic adventure.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.  A scientist is in the Amazon jungle working on the next new wonder drug, and disappears.  Another scientist goes looking for her, and he disappears.  Another scientist goes looking for both of them, and finds a whole bunch of stuff.  It’s disturbing, exciting, thought provoking and some of the characters are from Minnesota.

The Mushroom Hunters: This is the true story of foodie writer Langdon Cook, who tags along with some rough-and-tumble sort-of-outlaws who forage mushrooms full time.  Super interesting, well-told, and I finished the book knowing that I’d never be tempted to live that sort of life!

My chair
This is where I hibernate in the winter

Pine Needle Tea

White Pine Twigs
White Pine, fun to forage in the Winter

Today’s Tea: Fresh White Pine needles and some dried Rose Hips.  So simple, so delicious.  I picked up a few wind-fallen pine twigs, pulled the needles off and cut them up into a quart jar.  Threw a handful of dried Rose Hips in the jar, topped it off with almost-boiling water, capped it to keep those volatile oils in, and steeped it for a couple hours to get as much vitamin C as possible.  It’s mild and smooth, and I drink it hot or cold.  I noticed when it was cold I could taste more of the tartness of the Rose Hips, but either way it’s refreshing and nourishing.

Pine and Rose Hip Tea
Yum!

You can use most Pines and Spruces for teas, with the exception of Yew, Ponderosa Pine, and Norfolk Island Pine.  In addition to having lots of Vitamin C, pine needle teas help loosen congestion and are high in antioxidants.  Good stuff!

 

My Favorite Wild Food Books

0123180832I am a bona fide Book Nerd.  I read constantly, and own hundreds of books.  I love all of them, and some I love more than others.  Here are the very Favorite of my Favorites, the books I’m looking at more than any others, because I’m a Wild Food Nerd, too.  In no particular order, just because I feel like being random. And no, I don’t get any compensation for mentioning these books, mainly because I haven’t figured out how that works. But someday…….

Botany in a Day, by Thomas Elpel.  He covers Edible, Medicinal and Poisonous plants, and designed this book so that we look at the common characteristics within plant families to help us identify  plants in the field.  I especially like the “Key Words” he points out for each plant family – for instance, Mustard family key words are “4 petals and 6 stamens – 4 tall and 2 short”.   (Plant.  There, I just had to say it one more time.)

All of Sam Thayer’s Books: The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles.  These books are beautiful, thorough, and have hundreds of excellent photographs of the many wild foods he talks about.  There are pages of information about each plant, and it’s presented in an engaging style with personal stories, antidotes, and lots of botanical details.

Mushrooms of the Midwest, by Teresa Marrone.  A good number of mushroom field guides are hard to navigate and have too-small photos.  This little field guide is easy to use, and it has large, beautiful photographs with easy to read details.  One caveat with this book: apparently the photo of the Chaga mushroom is suspected by some fellow foragers to be something other than Chaga.  Just so ya know.

Alchemy of Herbs, by Rosalee de la Foret.  This isn’t a totally wild food book, but it does include some favorites like Nettle, Dandelion, Hawthorn and others.  What I absolutely love about this book is that is focuses on using medicinal herbs in food preparations, rather than the usual tinctures, gylcerites, etc.  The author thoroughly covers the medicinal properties of the herbs, and then tells us how best to incorporate them into delicious recipes.

Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Bradford Angier.  It’s a slim book that covers over 100 plants.  What I love most about this one is the colored drawings…..There are no photographs, but the drawings are beautiful and detailed.  I also like that the plants are listed alphabetically by their common names.  It’s a very easy guide to work with.

Backyard Medicine, by Julie Bruton-Seal & Mathew Seal. In contrast to Alchemy of Herbs, this books goes into great detail about how to make all kinds of medicinal preparations with backyard plants.  I especially love all the different ways they share to explore the medicine of plants: teas, infusions, decoctions, tincture, glycerites, wines and beers (!!), vinegars, herbal honeys, oxymels, electuaries (I’d never heard this word before, but I’ve done this – it’s just mixing powdered herb into honey to make a paste), syrups, salves and more, oh my!

And there you have it, my Favorite of Favorites.  There will be others down the road, I’m sure, because I will always be looking at books about Wild Food and Folk Medicine….

Kombucha

Kombucha in glass jug
This is not Kimchi

The first time someone asked me about Kombucha (a sort-of-sweet fermented beverage), I thought they were talking about Kimchi (a spicy fermented vegetable mix).  It took me a few beats to realize that we were having a conversation about completely different things.  I stopped, mid-sentence, and said something like “Wait, what?”.

I’d never heard of it before, and the more my friend told me about it, the more intrigued I was.  You put WHAT on top of the tea?  SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast, and it’s a slimy blob that contains, well, bacteria and yeast.  The good kind. The bacteria and yeast eat the sugar in the sweetened tea and convert it to lactic acid, carbon dioxide, vinegar, and a teeny bit of alcohol.  The resulting beverage is tangy, sweet and sometimes fizzy.  It’s really quite delicious, and I’ve been drinking it off and on for several years now.

HealthyScoby
A healthy, thriving SCOBY. Doesn’t it look like a jellyfish??

One of the reasons people drink this beverage, besides the fact that it tastes good, is because it contains probiotics, those beneficial bacteria like the kind in yogurt.  Probiotics line the gut and are essential for our immune system.   I’ve been a little suspicious about the amount of sugar in my homebrew, but a little bit of math made me feel better.  I start out with 1 cup of sugar in a gallon of tea.   Okay, that’s a lot, that’s 4-ish teaspoons of sugar in one cup. But….a good bit of the sugar gets eaten and converted to other, more healthy stuff.  In looking at labels on store brands of kombucha, they vary from 4 to 10 grams of sugar per serving (4 grams is one teaspoon).  I like mine a bit on the tangy side, so I’m guessing my homebrew is on the low end of that scale.  Even so, I don’t drink it every day, and I don’t use it as a “health food”.  It’s a treat for once in awhile, and a fun experiment to keep on my kitchen counter.

So, how is this very tasty, sort of healthy-ish trendy beverage made?   I’m not going to go into tons of detail here, because so many others have done that pretty darn well.  I’ll include some links at the end of this post.  I WILL go through the basics, though, and tell you my tweaks.

It’s a pretty simple process:  make tea, add sugar (1 cup per gallon), put in a glass container, put SCOBY in the container along with the liquid it came with, cover loosely, start tasting in a few days and drink it when the tangy/sweet flavor tastes good to you.  It will keep getting tangier, the longer you let it sit, turning completely into vinegar eventually.  You can use the vinegar, too!

If you want to keep the Kombucha going perpetually, there are a few things to keep in mind.  The tea needs to be Real Tea, from the plant Camellia sinensis, and the sugar needs to be plain ol’ white sugar from cane or beets.  These items give the Kombucha what it needs to keep on going.  Or so I’m told.  I like to use organic black tea and cane sugar, because that’s kind of the point of making my own stuff, right?

To keep it going, you’ll bottle up your Kombucha when it tastes good to you, leaving at least one cup for the ‘starter’ of the next batch.  Make more sweetened tea, add your starter and SCOBY and there you go.   I have used one of those beverage containers with the spigot for ease in getting the Kombucha into my cup, but after awhile the plastic spigot started to erode and it grossed me out.  I wouldn’t want to use metal, either, thinking the acid in the Kombucha would leach something nasty from that, too.  So I just go Old School and use a glass pickle jar.  When it comes time to taste or to bottle up, I use a ladle and a funnel.  It works just fine.

I usually drink my Kombucha plain, but sometimes I’ll flavor it in a second ferment.  Right now I’m getting some elderberry and prickly ash berry simple syrup going, and will add them to a couple bottles to add some punch.  I’ll put about a quarter cup of the simple syrup in a flip-top sealing jar, let it sit on the counter for a day or two or three, then I’ll open it up to see if it’s fizzy and check the taste.  If all is good, it either goes into the fridge or into my belly.  If the fizz and flavor isn’t there yet, it’ll sit on the counter another few days.  Along with the crazy assortment of fermenting things already there.

Flip Top Bottles
You can buy these flip-top sealing bottles online, but they come empty. I like to buy mine with beverages in them…..

 

Here are some really informative articles if you want to continue reading about Kombucha.  I mean, who wouldn’t?

This one is on a website where you can buy stuff for fermenting.  But don’t buy a SCOBY.  You can get one for free just by asking around – they multiply, and if someone you know is making Kombucha they WILL have a SCOBY for you.

A great article about Kombucha by the king of fermentation himself, Sandor Katz.  I love how he takes the fear out of fermenting.

And lastly, a bit on making flavored Kombucha from the Weston A. Price foundation.