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The Persistent Forager

WILD FOOD FORAGER PAUL TAPPENDEN REMINDS US THAT THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO FORAGE, NO MATTER THE SEASON…

For us foraging types, February is a very challenging month. It is about now that I am usually climbing the walls, counting the days until spring. Once the snows cover the ground, whatever greens are left disappear from view, so we are pretty much left with what the trees have to offer. With few other options to distract me, I use the winter to brush up on my tree identification and to explore possible uses.

Pines are very versatile. They provide us with their needles for making teas and resin (for myriads of uses). The inner bark can be prepared and eaten (although I have yet to try it). The bark is also useful for making baskets. Other conifers can be used in similar ways.

The inner bark of Black Birch makes a delicious wintergreen flavored tea, or it can be fun to chew on a twig while walking in the woods. Sassafras root bark has a similar flavor and was originally used in making root beer (hence the name). Ardent herbalists and woodland dwellers use this season to gather some of the medicinal polypores such as Chaga, that inhabit the trunks of dying White Birch trees.

Just recently, a friend introduced me to Hickory syrup. She arrived at my house with a bag filled with chunks of loose bark that she had gathered from a Shagbark Hickory tree. We put it in the oven for about half an hour to give it a slightly smoky flavor. Then we put the bark into a large pan with several cups of water and two cups of organic sugar and simmered it until it had reduced down to a rich, brown syrup. I dipped a fingertip in and sampled our creation. It was delicious. Every bit as tasty as maple syrup (but way cheaper).

Speaking of maple syrup, before this month is out, we may also be tapping the Sugar Maples and other likely candidates (such as Birches) for making syrups and sugars, or just for drinking (a pleasure that everyone should experience at least once).

So, as you can see, for the persistent forager, the season never really ends.

Autumn Olive Abounds

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden gives some tips for foraging autumn olive, and provides some photos for preparation inspiration…

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an “invasive” plant that originates from the far east. In the US they are escapees that have made themselves at home in the Northeast and other parts of the country. The berries (not actually olives) usually grow in large clusters along the branches of bushes. If you stop and study them, you’ll see that they are covered with silvery spots and that the dark green leaves are pearlescent underneath, making the foliage appear to shimmer. They are somewhat tart, but are highly nutritious.

Autumn Olives are rich in antioxidants, and one of the highest natural sources of lycopene (many times greater than tomatoes).

Lycopene is recognized for its anti-cancer properties and its effectiveness in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The seeds are high in vitamin E and Omega 3 fatty acid, so these berries are a powerhouse of goodness.

Their season has just begun in the Northeast, and depending on the location of the bushes, may well last into November. However, the majority of berries can be harvested between mid-September and mid-October.

The biggest mistake that foragers make with Autumn Olives, is to gather them too early. The problem is that the berries turn red long before they develop their sugars. The result is a very tart harvest, that can only be used to make sauces. Once they have fully ripened, they have a sweet/tart flavor, and make good eating.

When gathering them, it is well to note that the ripeness of the berries varies from bush to bush and often from branch to branch, so the wise forager will leave the less ripe fruit and return to harvest it at a later time.

They can be left to sit at room temperature for a couple of weeks without spoiling. In fact, during that time the unripe berries will usually

ripen. They will last longer when kept refrigerated and can be frozen as is. In fact, freezing then often sweetens them up somewhat. Also, frozen berries can be used throughout the year.


Important safety note
: there are many types of red berries ripening this time of year, some of them poisonous. If you have any questions in identifying autumn olive, please get in touch with us.

Wild Edibles Foraging – Free Public Program

Sunday, April 29th from 12 -1 PM
307 Hungry Hollow Rd. Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977

Join us for a vernal adventure into our environs to discover what’s growing wild and edible in our area. We’ll learn plant names, properties, tastes, uses in cooking, and get an overall feel for a number of plants. Early spring should yield a plethora of tender flora. Join us for a fun, investigative feast from the earth.

The program will be followed by an optional Open House afterward from 1 – 4 pm. Please email us at camp@thenatureplace.com to make an Open House appointment.

Equinox

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, reminds us what plants to look out for as the season changes…

Spring is upon us, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen many signs of my plant friends coming back to life, not to mention all the spring bulbs that are sprouting and flowering in our front yard.

I’ve already paid several visits to the woods to photograph the Skunk Cabbage flowers, and noticed the young Watercress plants coming up in the marshland pools. I’ve seen patches of Snowdrops, with their elegant drooping blossoms and young Stinging Nettle leaves unfurling. It won’t be long before the Spring beauties will begin to appear, followed by the Trout Lilies. This is a very exciting time of year for those of us who love nature.

 The Spring Equinox is filled with promise. It represents a new awakening, and although it may snow like heck the next day, we are warmed by the sure knowledge that the days will gradually get longer and warmer, bringing life and color into our world.  Shakespeare did not pen, “Now is the ‘Spring’ of our discontent.” And with good reason–how can we be discontented when surrounded by such beauty?

After years of working with plants and using herbs, I am in no doubt about the many powers they possess–to the point that merely being in their presence can be potently healing. Their energies are undeniable, which is why I don’t need to actually consume a plant to absorb its medicinal magic.

I can understand why there are so many indigenous ceremonies attached to the equinox, which show thanks for having survived the winter and appreciation for all of nature’s gifts. As a wild foods diarist. I am thankful that after those long, seemingly barren winter months, I’ll now have lots to write about as spring bursts into life.

Pine Resin

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, points out the many properties and potentials of pine resin…

During the winter months, when most signs of life have disappeared, I make good use of our local evergreens, particularly the ubiquitous White Pine. Besides having vitamin rich needles that make a tasty tea, it drops hundreds of pine cones.  Most of them are usually spattered with droplets of dried Pine resin, which can be scraped off and collected.

Pine resin is a very useful substance to have on hand. To begin with, it is highly flammable, which makes it very useful in fire making, especially when using damp wood. I’ve started a fire in a rain storm using pine cones and birch bark.

The resin can be melted down and used as an adhesive or a water-proofing sealer. By adding different fillers, we can create various media and glues. Hardwood ash, for instance, will make a hard epoxy-like adhesive. The addition of beeswax will create a more malleable medium, similar to tar.

The medicinal properties of Pine resin are extensive. It is anti-microbial, an anti-fungal and a pain reliever (especially for arthritis). It can be dissolved in oil to create an infused oil, that can be used in the treatment of chest complaints and cold symptoms.

These amazing trees have many more uses, including as a food.

Dandelion Root Recipes

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden shares a few creative ways he loves to use dandelion root in regular cooking. You may be surprised at just how versatile this pervasive plant is.

I’ve found many different uses for Dandelions during my time as a forager. Each part of the plant, from the flower to the root, has several purposes—from wines, to dyes, to foods and medicines.

The root is unquestionably the most versatile part. I’ve often written about how I grind and roast the roots to make a tasty coffee substitute, but the same ground roots can also be used in other ways. A few years ago, I reconstituted some in a gravy, adding chopped onion, garlic and herbs, to create a substitute for minced beef. It worked so well, that I have made it several times since, refining my recipe each time.

I’ve used my fake chop meat in pasta sauces, chilis, stuffed peppers and pastry fillings. I’ve even combined it with egg and acorn flour to create faux meatballs. By adding other textures. like acorn grits, ground Maitaki mushrooms, or mashed lentils, the texture and flavor can be adjusted.

I find clean straight roots, I put them aside. Once I have a few, I take a potato peeler and cut the roots into long strips, which I dehydrate and reconstitute in a sauce. I then semi-dehydrate the flavored roots until they have a texture like jerky. Again, it took several tries to get it just right, but now it is an oft-requested munchy.

Another popular dish, is my wild, vegan version of Jamaican patties, using curried dandelion-root-filling in an acorn crust. Whenever I take some to an event, they disappear rapidly.  Not only are they tasty, but they are organic, non-GMO and full of nutrition.

A Forager’s Thanksgiving

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes his forager’s feast, and it sounds so good that one can almost taste it.

Every year since 2011, I have come together with a group of fellow wild crafters to celebrate Thanksgiving with a forager’s feast.

We begin planning in October, when there is still plenty to be foraged, although some of us even gather and preserve seasonal food throughout the year, in anticipation of our yearly gathering.

Anyone hearing of a wild foods feast may imaging barely eatable dishes made from weeds. But quite to the contrary, many of our number are excellent chefs, and produce some delicious and imaginative culinary creations.The dishes that arrive at our pot luck gathering may contain such gourmet ingredients as Maitaki or Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, wild fruits such as Autumn olives and Mayapples, and game such as venison or partridge. We also incorporate common wild foods such as Stinging nettles, Chickweed, Dandelion, and acorns.

In addition to using the leaves, we grind and roast the dandelion roots for “coffee”.  We process the acorns to make flour for creating exotic nutty crusts for our pies and pastries.

Drinks range from home-made kombucha to Dandelion wine.

We always look forward to these gatherings, to enjoy the delicious food and great company. No matter what sort of feast you’ll be having this Thanksgiving, I hope it makes you feel the same way.

 

Bring on the Barberries

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden introduces us to a superfood found growing by some of our favorite hiking trails.

Barberries are an introduced plant in our area, having escaped captivity and made their home at the edges of our woodlands.

Straight off the bush, the small elongated red berries tend to be rather tart, but they can be pretty tasty when they are prepared correctly.  However, I eat them straight off the bush, regardless of their flavor.  They are such a potent superfood, that I don’t mind the flavor.  I rarely pass a bush without helping myself to a few berries.  It is as though I am taking a supplement.

Barberries are remarkably high in antioxidants.  They have been measured at 9 times that of Goji berries.  For this reason, they are a good anti-cancer food.  Naturally, they help build the immune system.  During the winter months, they are a good source of Vitamin C.

As I mentioned in my last Barberry post, these berries have been clinically proven to be highly effective in clearing up acne.

Now, as we head into winter, Barberries are once again coming into season.  If I can gather enough of them, I will usually make some Barberry butter, which can be used as a sauce over ice cream or as basting sauce for chicken, duck or fish.  It is excellent just spread on bread.

Black Walnut Riches

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes the ways he makes the most of this sure sign of autumn.

Every fall, beginning in mid-September, I gather the black walnuts that litter the ground like green and black tennis balls all around our neighborhood. I try to gather the green ones, as they are less likely to contain the ubiquitous husk maggots. I remove the husks (usually by rolling them underfoot until the husks split) and put the nuts on a tray to dry them out, either in a low oven or in my dehydrator. After the initial drying I leave them sitting on a wire rack, to cure for about six weeks. Around Thanksgiving time they are ready to use.

To make use of the husks, I put them into a large bucket and pour on hot water. After a while, the water turns a deep, blackish brown. I pour it through a strainer into a second bucket, then use it to dye clothes or to stain wood. It makes the best tie dye effects.

Once the nuts have cured, I begin using them in my recipes. If I need nuts in my pastries, I’ll use either hickory nuts or black walnuts (or both), secure in the thought that they are fresh and haven’t been irradiated, like so many commercial nuts. Besides, black walnuts taste great!

The most challenging part is opening these tough shelled nuts. I use a strong knife and a hammer to split them in two, and then some snippers to remove the remaining shells (see below).

I encourage you to explore the many uses of one of nature’s many autumnal gifts.

The Case for Wild Foods

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden reminds us that there is such a thing as free (not to mention healthy) lunch, and it’s growing all around us.

 
Anybody who has spent any amount of time researching and reading about today’s food industry, will quickly conclude that the vast majority of “foods” on the market, particularly those marketed to babies and children, are bad for us.

Trying to be a responsible parent in today’s toxic environment, is one of the most challenging undertakings we face. For this reason, it is important to introduce our children to the concept of growing our own food. Just being in a garden and getting their hands in the soil can be of huge benefit to young minds. The connection to the natural world is vital to complete development.

Foraging in the garden

Most non-organic foods, even fresh vegetables, are likely to contain either toxic additives or residues that build up in the body. These ultimately contribute to chronic ailments, making it even more essential that we feed our children organically grown foods.

Of course, eating healthy can be pretty costly, but there are ways to reduce costs. For me, the answer has been wild foods. If you are a regular reader of The Dirt, you will have read about many of the seasonal edibles that I gather to help supplement my regular diet.

Our gardens and local natural areas are filled with free, nutritious and tasty ingredients, there for the gathering. All we need to do is learn to recognize them and learn to use them. Even if we pick the occasional leaf and eat it, it can help to supply us with nutrients that may be lacking in our diet.

Plantago major (common plantain)

So, take the time to get to know some of the wild foods that surround us (even in our city parks) and share the knowledge with your children. Or, better still, if they attend the Nature Place Day Camp, they can teach you.

A feast provided by nature