Posts Tagged ‘foraging’

Easy Pickings: Foraging on Farms

August 18, 2010

This entry is not about gleaning, which is picking over a field to pick up what the harvesters missed.  For information on gleaning in the present day, there’s an interesting if slow-moving documentary called The Gleaners and I.

Farm foraging is the practice of finding abandoned farms and searching their grounds for horticultural holdouts from the past.  Old farms are pretty easy to spot–the sagging barns, sun-bleached houses, and rusted sheds are a pretty common sight in the rural corners of the midwest.  Until recently, farmers lived where they grew, and kept kitchen gardens in addition to the fields, where they grew their main crop.  Although a garden bed can be completely weeded over after a month or two of neglect, some of the other garden plantings can continue growing a generation after the farm was shuttered.

On a recent hiking trip, my family spent some time passing though several abandoned homesteads.  Close to the houses, we found apples, good enough to eat out of hand (a rare quality in non-commercial apples) and big, sweet blackberries with very few seeds.  The apple tree was probably planted several decades ago as part of an orchard, and the blackberries had probably spread far from their original spot–they’re notoriously invasive.

I would expect that other farms still have asparagus patches, grapes, rhubarb, raspberries, gooseberries, and other long-lived perennials growing, long after their planters have moved on.  Other self-propagators, like sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, nasturtium, and squash may even be sprouting year after year.

Kitchen gardens were usually placed as close as possible to the house, to make it easy to harvest as necessary.  If the house is still standing, the garden should be easy to find.  If not, look for the foundation–it’s likely grown over with weeds, but should still be standing.  While you’re working around the foundation, don’t forget to look for those edible ornamentals, like roses and daylilies.

Advertisements

Blueberries

June 27, 2010

I intended to write this entry last summer, when I was lost in the wilderness of Washington and managed the hours in the woods by eating huckleberries, but that doesn’t really fit the “Great Lakes” theme of the blog.  I found them on a recent backpacking trip here in Michigan, though, and was delighted to discover that they were ripe and ready to eat.

Finding Blueberries

I have never found blueberries in my section of Michigan, but they were growing in patches as far as the eye could see just 50-60 miles north of where I live.  I haven’t found a great way to find blueberries, but anytime I’ve come across them, it’s been in a relatively undisturbed coniferous forest.  This makes sense, as blueberries require an acidic soil, which is typical beneath the pines and cedars I’ve found them under.

I don’t know of any lookalike plants that may confuse the blueberry-seeker–the berry is pretty distinctive, both in shape and color.  They may be smaller than grocery store blueberries, but they’re unmistakable.  The bushes are a foot or two tall with fairly sparse leaves.  The leaves are football-shaped, small (about the size of a quarter), and bright green.

Harvesting Blueberries

I’ve always found several types of blueberries growing together, and the ripe color of each variety is a little different, from blue to an almost purple-black.  The best way to determine if they’re ripe is to taste them.  They darken as they ripen, so berries of similar color should be similarly ripe.

Preparing Blueberries

They’re really best eaten out of hand, right off the bush, but they can be used in any recipe that calls for blueberries.

Eating Blueberries

Wild blueberry plants are quite different from domesticated plants–the bushes are much smaller less densely covered in fruit.  The berries are much smaller, sometimes even a quarter the size of grocery store blueberries, but there is no difference in taste.  I might even say that a handful of wild blueberries is better than store-bought, since you won’t find any of the bland, over-sweet and over-ripe berries on wild bushes.

Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

Black Walnuts: Tedious but Delicious

September 21, 2009

Foraging will always take more time than preparing store-bought food, but black walnuts may be the most time-consuming wild food I’ve tried.  Finding and collecting them can go quickly, but the prep work (and the eventual yield) give walnuts one of the highest time-to-food value ratios.  For me, it’s worth it, but you might want to try these out on a small scale before you commit to bushels and bushels of walnuts.

Finding Walnuts

I’ll find walnuts while hiking now and then, but when I’m looking to harvest them, I’ll drive through some of the older neighborhoods in town.  Black walnuts are generally despised as shade trees, but a few people still have them in their yards.  You can usually see their driveways and patios littered with the blackened husks, and all but the most paranoid neighbors would love to have you gather a bushel or two of nuts.  I’ve also had good luck asking on local online message boards.  The greasy, round, rotting walnuts can pose a serious safety risk, so a lot of people are grateful to have someone come over and pick them up.

Harvesting Walnuts

Harvesting is easy.  I bring a bucket, bushel, or basket and start picking them up off the ground.  I’ve never tried to pull them off the tree, as they generally fall off when they get ripe.  I try to be selective, and just get the freshly-fallen, completely green fruits.

Preparing Walnuts

This is where it gets difficult.  First, you need to remove the husks.  The walnut juice will stain your clothes and skin, so wear gloves and grubby clothes.

I start with a patio stone and a sturdy pair of boots, grinding each walnut under the heel until the green part falls off and I’m left with the familiar-looking nut.  I’ve read accounts of people spreading them over the driveway and driving over them, but I find the monotonous and violent boot method soothing.  It’s important to get the husks off as soon as possible, as they begin to decompose, which causes the nuts to spoil.  The husks will be really wormy.  The grubs are disgusting but won’t affect the nut.

Once they are husked, the nuts need to be rinsed.  Dump them in a bucket of water.  I’ve read (but not confirmed) that the ones that float are spoiled.  I discard them, but only after making sure I’ve removed all of the husk–every so often, a bit of the especially-bouyant husk will be holding up a nut that would otherwise sink.

After they’ve been husked, I hang them in a mesh basket from the clothesline.  Squirrels will seek them out extremely aggressively, so be sure they’re secure.  Once they’re dry, I put the nuts in the freezer, or in a cool place if the freezer’s full–The nutmeat is really oily, so low temperatures keep it from going rancid.

The nuts need to be broken up to remove the meat, and black walnuts are far harder than the commercial (English) version.  A nutcracker won’t do it, but a hammer will.  A solid strike at the pointy end will split it in two, but they’ll need to be busted into quarters or smaller to get the nuts out.  If available, a bench vise works way better than a hammer.  I put them in so that the seam of the nut is perpendicular to the face of the vise and crank down until it cracks.  I’ll crack nuts until the vise handle starts to hurt my palm, then put it all back in the freezer until I want to get back into it.

When they’re cracked, the last step is getting the meat out.  If you’ve cracked the nuts into the quarters, you should be able to pull out fairly big chunks of nutmeat with a nut pick, awl, or toothpick.  I put all of the meat in a jar and put it in the freezer.

Eating Walnuts

Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than commerical walnuts, which makes them ideal for baked goods.  I treat them like a precious commodity, having gone through a lot of work to procure them, but they work well in zuchinni bread, carrot muffins, and brownies.  They are better the sooner you use them, so be generous.  I love the flavor, and they are one of the few nuts available that are locally grown, but they are an aquired taste.  My wife tolerates them, and others don’t like them at all.  As I said, try out a few before investing the time.

More on Mayapples

August 22, 2009

I expressed my love for mayapples last year, when I first tried them.  Since early this spring, when their umbrella-leaves first started to appear, I began plotting my harvest on a massive scale.  I’ve picked about a bushel of the fruits (not including a false start noted in the comments on my previous entry), but now I don’t know what to do with them.  I’ve got them in a plastic bag, and I eat a few out of hand for breakfast as they ripen.  It’s an inconvenient ordeal–I cut it open, suck out the pulp, then use my teeth and tongue to filter out the seeds, which I spit out.

I’ve tried chopping the fruits and running them through a food mill, but this pushes through a lot of the bitter rind, which gives the resulting pulp an unpleasant taste.  I’ve also tried running just the pulp through the food mill, but the pulp sticks to the seeds, and very little goes through.  This is where I’m stuck.  They are a delicious fruit, but I can only eat a few of them at a time, and it’s hardly worth the effort.  If anyone has any suggestions, I’d like to hear them.  All of the internet sources I’ve looked at recommend running them through a food mill, but no one mentions how to deal with the rind.

Mulberries

June 23, 2009

I thought eating mulberries was a universal childhood experience, but my wife and I found a mulberry tree on a walk, and it had never occurred to her to eat them.  With that in mind, I submit this entry.

Finding Mulberries
I don’t remember ever seeing a mulberry tree “in the wild”—they’re always along sidewalks, in backyards, etc.  They are medium-sized trees, topping out around 15-25 feet tall, with a weirdly lobed leaf.  They are most easily identified by their berries, which look a lot like raspberries and start out white, then turn pink, and wind up nearly black.

Harvesting Mulberries
I read (I think in Stalking the Wild Asparagus) about a method for harvesting mulberries.  By placing a big sheet under a tree and shaking the tree, all of the ripe berries will come loose and land on the sheet.  I did not have this option available, as the tree I was picking from was growing alongside a parking lot.  I brought a bowl, picked berries by hand, and put them into the bowl in a shallow layer.  If they get stacked up too high, the ones on the bottom get crushed by the ones on the top.

Preparing Mulberries
When picked, the little stem stays on the fruit.  You can leave it on.  Although they can be eaten out of hand, or right off the tree, they are best mixed with other fruits.  Smoothies, fruit salads, and cobblers are all great uses for mulberries.

Eating Mulberries
My copy of The Joy of Cooking suggests that mulberries are best left for children, and I’d agree that they aren’t great by themselves.  They have a bland sweetness that is easy to get sick of.  Mixed with other fruit, though, they’re delicious.

Stinging Nettles

May 15, 2009

Finding Nettles

Although nettles have a fairly distinctive appearance—they are very mint-like, with dark green leaves sprouting off of squarish stems—they are by far most easily identified by their sting.  When I thought I found a patch of nettles, I brushed the back of my hand over them and waited to feel the sting.  Sure enough, a warm, throbbing pain confirmed their identity.  I’m not sure where it is usually located, as I don’t see it often, but the patch I tested was located in a forest along a path.  It is best harvested when it is young, in spring, but, according to my field guides, the new growth at the tips can be harvested through the summer.

Harvesting Nettles

First off, some protection is called for.  I tried to use a plastic bag to grab the plant while I cut it with my clippers.  This did not work in the least—I inevitably brushed against other leaves while moving in with the clippers, and got stung routinely as I harvested.  Next time, I’ll use gloves.  Since I knew I’d be cooking them down, I harvested a lot—a plastic grocery bag full.  I stuck with harvesting the top of each sprout, cutting down 8-12”.

Preparing Nettles

The stingers need to be disarmed before cooking the nettles.  Fortunately, this is an easy fix.  I boiled up a big pot of water, and dunked the nettles in long enough for them to wilt—just a few seconds.  I use the boiling water to kill weeds in the cracks of my driveway, but that part is optional.
Once they’ve been dipped, the nettles are ready to go.  I dumped them on a cutting board, chopped them up, and added them to a palak paneer with some home-grown spinach and home-made cheese.  I imagine it could be used in any sort of recipe calling for cooked greens.

Eating Nettles

I’ve never really figured out how to cook proper Southern greens, though I try every few days throughout turnip season.  If I had a good recipe, nettles would be my greens of choice—they stand up to a good bit of cooking without getting slimy.  In the relatively low-fat palaak paneer, they even came out a little dry.  I wrung them out after dipping them in the boiling water, and that was probably overkill.  Apart from the dryness, the texture was great, though.  The flavor was, well, comparable to any other kind of greens.  I’ll definitely be returning to my new nettles patch, and probably freezing a bit before it gets too tough.

Winter Greens I: Sprouting

January 13, 2009

Although I’ve got some parsnips in the ground, some squash in the attic, and a few things in the freezer, I’m still looking for some fresh, local produce.  The best I’ve come up with so far is cold framing and sprouts.  I’ll cover cold framing as soon as I figure out how to get pictures off of my camera phone, so today it’s sprouts.

Finding Sprouts
Although I purchase alfalfa and mung bean seeds from the local health food store, I also sprout seeds that I’ve grown myself.  Most of the cabbage family, including broccoli, works well when sprouted.  I imagine lambs quarters seeds would be good sprouted, but I haven’t collected the seeds yet.  I’m also going to try purslane seeds.  I know that tomato and pepper seeds don’t yield edible sprouts, so it might be a general rule that fruiting vegetables don’t make good sprouts.  I’ve also just started sprouting sunflower seeds, which are sprouted in soil rather than in water.  I grow sunflowers in the summer, but I’ll sprout the sunflower seeds sold for birdfeeders when I run out.  The seeds sold for human consumption won’t work, as they are roasted and salted and won’t sprout.

It’s important to avoid using seeds purchased for planting, as they are treated with fungicides and other sorts of things that are best not ingested.  An additional precaution:  sunflowers are often used to clean up industrial waste sites, as the plants absorb a lot of heavy metals.  Use caution when finding “wild” sunflowers.

Harvesting Sprouts

Harvesting seeds varies depending on the plant.  It’s important that they are properly dried if you’re going to be storing them; to test them, I put seeds in a sealed jar overnight to see if any moisture forms inside the jar.  When they have air-dried, they can be stored.  For sunflower seeds, I keep whole, dried flower heads in the attic and rub off enough seeds to make a planting.

Preparing Sprouts

To sprout most seeds, I take a regular jar, put seeds in it to cover the bottom, and cover them with water to soak.  When they’ve soaked for a few hours, drain the water off.  After they’ve been soaked, rinse and drain them twice a day—I fill the jar with water once in the morning, then pour it off, then do the same before bed.  After two weeks or so, they will begin to sprout and will be ready to eat.  At this point, they can be put in the refrigerator for later use.

To grow sunflower seeds, I fill a tray of some kind (I’ve even used egg cartons) with potting soil and stick in seeds.  They can be packed in packed in pretty closely, as they won’t be growing very big.  Keep them watered and in a sunny/well lit place—windowsill, etc.—until they sprout.  When the seed coat has fallen off and both leaves are out, the sprouts are ready to be harvested.  Using scissors, just cut the sprouts off at the base and use as soon as possible.

Eating Sprouts

Any sprout serves well in the place of lettuce on a sandwich. Some have more flavor than others, but the taste is welcome in most combinations.  Sunflower sprouts are mild enough that they could serve as the base for a green salad, if you can grow enough at one time.  Sprouted mung beans are used in pad thai, and can be added to any stir fry in the last few moments of cooking.

The wide variety of seeds that can be sprouted offers something for every eater.  Sprouts are a delicious alternative to the pathetic lettuce shipped into my grocery store throughout the winter months, and are higher in nutrients if sprouted in the open, as opposed to the light-excluding traditional method.

A Forager Forgives: Rosehips Revisited

December 10, 2008

The first “wild” food I tried in order to generate material for this weblog was rosehips.  For that entry, I tried some withered old fruits that were not very good.  This year’s attempt went a lot better.

Finding Rosehips
I had my eye on a wild rose in my foraging grounds, but it bore tiny TicTac sized hips.  I went back to the few roses I have in my yard—one shrub and one climber.  I’d love to find a wild source of rosehips, but I imagine I could find an ample supply in some of the more affluent neighborhoods in town.

Harvesting Rosehips
My field guide recommended I pick rosehips that had turned orange, indicating ripeness.  I only had a few orange hips ready to go, so I picked a few green hips, as well.  It didn’t seem to make much difference.

Preparing Rosehips
After gathering a handful of rosehips, I trimmed the stems and brushed the blossom end off a little to remove the stamens (or whatever it is at the end of a rosehip).  I sliced them in half, and poured boiling water over them.  After 10 minutes, I poured the tea through a sieve into a cup.  I served it as a tea with a little honey.

Eating Rosehips
I was deliriously ill when I tried this, so I concede I may not be qualified to comment.  The tea was a bit bland, but the honey made it more palatable.  Rose hip tea is reputed to be very high in vitamin C, and as a means of delivering vitamins it wasn’t bad.  As a food for pleasure, it was mediocre.  If was choosing between drinking rosehip tea and getting scurvy, the choice is easy.  Choosing between rosehips and an orange, though, is just as easy.  It remains to be seen how deep I’m willing to go into this local thing.

Daylilies: Are invasive species so bad?

November 28, 2008

The search for starch continues (after the Jerusalem artichoke disappointment), and this time I was a little more successful.  Daylilies are an import from Asia, but they have naturalized here in the states to the point of showing up in my wildflower field guide.  The Chinese have been eating them throughout history, but they haven’t caught on as a food crop in the States.  I ate the tubers for this entry, but the plants also produce edible shoots and flowers.  I haven’t tried the shoots–there are a lot of delicious shoots sprouting up around the same time–but the boiled/steamed flowerbuds make a passable vegetable.

Finding Daylilies

Daylilies are best found when in bloom, usually in June or July.  The familiar orange trumpet-shaped flower can be found along roads, and seems to be especially common in the drainage ditches along rural roads.  The beginner should take a second to confirm that they aren’t regular lilies, which are not edible.  Daylilies form a mound of strappy leaves, and lilies form a stalk, with leaves growing along the stalk.  Daylilies will grow in fairly shady situations, but this seems to impair their ability to flower.  Like so many wild edibles, the border between forests and roads, rivers, railroads, and fields are a good place to find them.  As a cultivated plant, they are readily available in landscapes everywhere, as the plant is attractive both when it’s flowering and as a foliage plant, and it’s extremely-low maintenence once established.

Harvesting Daylilies

Getting the tubers is easy, as long as the ground isn’t frozen.  I’ve heard that waiting until after a frost sweetens them, and that seems to be the case, as the batch I had was quite sweet.  To dig them up, I found some of last summer’s wilted leaves and followed them to the stem, then stuck the trowel in about 4 inches away, so as not to damage any of the tubers.  Pulling on the leaves while pushing the trowel away from the plant levered it out of the ground easily.  The harvest from each plant is small–10-15 tubers about the size of an in-shell peanut–but the plants grow thickly and it’s easy to pull them up.  I cut a dozen of the biggest tubers off, then stick the rest of the plant back in the ground, but I haven’t tracked whether or not these plants survive.  However, the colonies as a whole can bounce back from a heavy harvest.

Preparing Daylilies

I was advised to cook daylily tubers like new potatoes, so I scrubbed them, twisted off any roots, and boiled them for about 15 minutes, then served them with butter.  Some of them would have benefited from being peeled, but most of them were fine whole.  The tubers with tough skin can be squeezed out once they are boiled.

Eating Daylilies

I always eat a new food as plainly as possible, so that I can evaluate it without elaborate preparation coloring my perception.  I served the boiled daylilies with a little butter.  The first thing I noticed was that rinsing them, as instructed in one of my manuals, is insufficient, and I should have scrubbed them to get all the grit off.  Besides a bit of dirt, they were pretty unremarkable–a bit more fibrous than a potato, maybe more like a boiled carrot in texture, with a nice sweetness and an earthy flavor.

One of the revelations of this wild-food experience is how unremarkable a lot of these foods are–poke sprouts, lambs quarters, sorrel, etc. all taste like “normal” food, and apart from being slightly unfamiliar in appearance, they could “pass”  on any dinner table.  I came in expecting a culture shock, similar to what I experienced the first time I ate sushi or curry or manioc.  Instead, most of these foods feel familiar.  I suppose that’s a good thing, but it makes this experience more like a homecoming than a safari.