Such a loud hum came from my favorite cherry tree yesterday that I thought I had a swarm on my hands. But on this sunny spring morning the bees were only happily collecting food for their babies. Like the forager pictured here, all the bees buzzing around my head had heavy loads of pollen on their legs.
Yesterday my husband brought me a glass of the dandelion wine we made last April. It’s a lovely brew, gently aromatic from the citrus and ginger, and sweet with residual sugar. I think I now know what the dandelions are for: They give the wine its pale golden color, to imitate white wine or, perhaps, mead.
The only way I can imagine improving the recipe would be to substitute honey for the refined sugar. But then I would have mead, and the dandelions might be superfluous.
As it is, our sweet, spicy, slightly bitter dandelion wine makes an excellent low-budget treat for the bleak mid-winter. I recommend drinking it cold, preferably by a warm fire.
At the start of mushroom season in western Oregon, I was lucky enough to take a gathering trip in the Willamette National Forest with employees of the Sweet Home Ranger District, who had scouted out a good site beforehand.
Yellow and white chanterelles (two distinct species that apparently differ only in color) grow at moderate elevations, to about three thousand feet, in partly sunny, recently logged spots full of prickly Oregon grape. Since the mushrooms were just beginning to emerge, most were hidden in the duff. My young friend Eugénie, a farm intern from an agricultural college in France, seemed to know just how to find them. When her head stayed down and her back up for minutes at a time, I knew I should keep close, preferably on all fours.
Thanks in part to another fellow gatherer who didn’t like mushrooms enough to keep them, I brought home about four pounds. Nobody else was home for dinner, so I pleased myself, by eating about a pound of chanterelles sautéed with home-cured bacon, onions, and arugula. Then I set to cleaning the rest of the mushrooms, a tedious job. Though cultivated mushrooms may need no more than a light brushing, wild ones won’t come clean without washing. I shot each mushroom quickly but carefully with the faucet sprayer and picked, scraped, or cut away sticking bits of dirt with a knife. Then I spread the chanterelles out to dry on a towel.
The next morning I could have packed the mushrooms into a paper bag and stored them in the refrigerator, where they would have kept well, slowly drying, for several days. Or I could have cooked them (mushroom connoisseurs recommend sautéing them dry, to better evaporate their water and concentrate their flavor) and stored them either in the refrigerator or freezer for later inclusion in soups, stews, omelets, and other dishes. But I am the Pickle Lady, so guess what I did?
I’d never pickled chanterelles before, and I wanted to try something different from the recipes in The Joy of Pickling (although the one I call Polish Pickled Mushrooms would work well for these delicately fruity mushrooms). I decided to try a variation on an Italian recipe. Here it is, modified to just fill a quart jar:
Juice of 1 lemon
3 teaspoons pickling salt
2 pounds cleaned chanterelles, cut into pieces if they’re very large
1 2/3 cups white wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
3 garlic cloves
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 sprig tarragon
3 allspice berries
6 black peppercorns
Put the lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of the pickling salt into a large pot of water, and bring the water to a full boil. Add the mushrooms, preferably in a blanching basket, and bring the water back to a boil. Immediately drain the mushrooms; they will have shrunk by about two-thirds. Let them cool, covered with a cloth. (You can boil down the blanching water, if you like, to make a tart, mildly mushroomy stock.)
While the mushrooms cool, combine the vinegar, the wine, the garlic, the herbs and spices, and the remaining 2 teaspoons salt in a saucepan. Cover the pan, bring the liquid to a boil, and reduce the heat. Simmer the liquid for 5 minutes, and then let it cool.
Pack the mushrooms in a quart jar, tucking the herbs around the edge. Pour the vinegar with the herbs and spices over. Store the jar in the refrigerator.
Wait at least a day or two before starting to eat the mushrooms. Then serve them as an appetizer or relish, sprinkled with olive oil, or add them to sandwiches. They are wonderful with melted cheese.
The last day of March dawned clear and breezy, and the grass all around was spotted yellow. The day was perfect for picking dandelions.
Ever since I was twelve years old, when I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, I’d thought about making the mysterious brew. Dandelions barely smell, to my nose, and what aroma they have seems more grassy than floral. The flower petals fortunately lack the bitterness of the rest of the plant, but they also lack much flavor at all. Yet apparently dandelion wine was once quite popular, at least among British and North American writers on country life in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Dandelion wine—“the words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury says. But what does the stuff taste like? One writer says sherry; another says the wine resembles whiskey, especially if you include the green parts of the flower and age the wine well. A North Dakota everything-but-grape winery says its dandelion wine is like “a cross between a light chardonnay and corn on the cob.” I could order the wine from North Dakota, but I wouldn’t know how it was made. I needed to make my own from a traditional recipe to know how dandelion wine ought to taste.
Often I’d been inspired to make dandelion wine too late in the year, when the yellow flowers spotting the grass weren’t dandelions at all but their less edible look-alikes, cat’s ear and sow thistle. One year my husband and I started picking those flowers and stopped only when our small daughter pointed out the leaves. Dandelion leaves really do look like dents de lion, or as least as you might imagine lion’s teeth to look, if lions had green teeth. And the leaves aren’t the least bit prickly or furry; they’re smooth and thin, and they look good to eat–as they are, if you like very bitter greens. In late March, though, I didn’t need to check the foliage; all the yellow flowers in the orchard and vegetable garden were dandelions.
I harvested the flowers as instructed by several old books: With one hand, snap off a head. With the other hand, pinch off the bracts along with any remains of the stem, which will be oozing bitter white sap, and as much of the base of the flower and the green calyx as come away easily. Drop the rest into a bucket. With the biggest flowers, I was sometimes able to pull away all the petals in one pinch and leave the rest of the flower behind.
Before I could pick the flower, though, I’d often have to pick off a bug. A spotted cucumber beetle, looking like a slightly elongated lady bug spotted black on yellow or yellow-green instead of red, rested on every third to fourth dandelion. Gluttons for bitterness, the beetles were enjoying dandelions as a starter course while waiting to feast on my cucumbers, melons, squash, and beans come summer. I pinched each beetle that didn’t get away—fortunately, they’re slow in cool weather–and wiped my fingers on the damp grass to avoid adding bitter beetle juice to my brew.
Despite the extra time devoted to pest control, in an hour and a half I’d harvested a gallon of dandelion blossoms. In the kitchen, I boiled a gallon of water in a stockpot and stirred in the flowers. Then I left the pot sitting on the kitchen counter for three days, and stirred the mixture once a day. It smelled mildly musty.
At this point old recipes vary somewhat. Since dandelion flowers aren’t sweet, the most important ingredient to add is sugar. Recipes often call for honey, Demerara sugar, malt sugar, raisins, or some combination of these. Reluctant to risk wasting expensive bought sugar or my home-produced honey or raisins, I added three pounds of ordinary white sugar. “To improve the flavor” (admits Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs), you next add citrus, usually ginger, and often another spice or two. I was wary of overpowering whatever flavor the dandelions might prove to possess, so I used the thinly peeled rind and the juice of just one orange and one lemon, plus an ounce of grated fresh ginger.
I stirred the mixture together, brought it to a boil, and let it boil gently for 20 minutes. Then I let it cool to lukewarm and poured it into a scalded food-grade plastic bucket. The old books say to set a piece of rye bread on top and spread yeast of an unspecified sort on top. Instead I stirred half an envelope of wine yeast into a quarter-cup of warm water and stirred the mixture into the bucket. I set a lid loosely on top and put the bucket in a warm closet.
Yesterday my husband sniffed the wine and assured me that fermentation was under way, so today I strained the bubbling liquid through a coarsely woven nylon jelly bag, poured the wine into a gallon glass jug, and plugged the jug with a waterlock. Squeezing the bag turned the liquid yellow, though the color may settle out along with the fine solids. I had about a pint left over after I filled the jug, so I put it into the fridge for later, but first I had a little taste. The new wine isn’t bitter or medicinal at all, but pleasantly sweet, citrusy, and a little gingery.
When the wine in the jug has finished fermenting, I’ll bottle it. After that, Euell Gibbons tells me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I mustn’t touch it until Christmas. Then I’ll tell you what I think of dandelion wine. Will it uphold the dandelion’s reputation as a diuretic, as revealed by its modern French name, pissenlit (“piss in the bed”)? Will it fortify my blood, as dandelions are also supposed to do? Maybe one taste will make me exclaim, like the boy in Bradbury’s book, “I’m a fire-eater! Whoosh!”
I’ll let you know what happens.
“There is a saving streak of the primitive in all of us,” wrote Euell Gibbons, who introduced the art of foraging to the citified masses in the 1960s and 1970s. Hunting was as popular a sport then as now, but foraging was easier and cheaper and ought to be practiced more, Gibbons believed. You didn’t have to go to the mountains or virgin forest to gather wild foods; you could just walk out your door and take a stroll. Fence rows, stream sides, and even vacant lots could provide the raw material for tasty, nutritious, and unusual table fare. In books and magazine articles, Gibbons told how to identify and harvest dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wild species, and how best to cook them up.
The Pacific Northwest now has its own modern Euell Gibbons in Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone). Although Cook grew up on factory food in suburban Connecticut, he certainly has a streak of the primitive. Cook first came to the Northwest to sailboard on the Columbia River. He returned a few years later to study creative writing and then took an editorial job with Amazon, but he couldn’t stay tethered to a desk for long. Cook likes to write, and he writes well, but he most likes outdoor adventure.
In and near Seattle, where he lives, Cook gathers weeds that Gibbons also loved–watercress, fiddleheads, stinging nettle, and dandelions. He “jigs” for squid off a Seattle pier, along with Nicaraguans, Cambodians, and Ukrainians (a jig is “like a miniature cigar” with a circle of hooks at the end, meant to entangle rather than impale a squid). He casts for silver salmon from a Seattle beach, day after day until he lands one.
Cook forages farther afield, too: He drives hundreds of miles to a fire-blackened forest to gather morels, avoiding crowds of recreational mushroom hunters and dodging potentially dangerous pros. He camps on the Washington coast in winter and wanders the beach at night with hundreds of strangers, all hoping to nab a few precious razor clams with their PVC suction guns. He keeps an eye out for bears while picking huckleberries in the Blue Mountains and eastern Cascades. He catches steelhead trout on the Rogue River (mostly hatchery grown, but wild enough after months or years in the Pacific), and, early on a June morning, he gets in line at Bonneville Dam to await the starting gun for shad season.
The more daring the foraging adventure, the more fun Cook seems to have. Instead of catching crabs by dropping pots from a boat, he likes to dive into the Puget Sound, “chase them down like a seal, pin them against the bottom,” and then try to grab the crabs’ back legs without getting his hand sliced by the pincers. With his friend Dave, he deigns to use a boat to catch spot shrimp, but it’s a borrowed canoe on a windy day in the treacherous fjord known as Hood Canal, and the men must pull up hundreds of feet of rope by hand to collect their pots. Most frighteningly, Cook free-dives as deep as thirty feet in the cold water of the Sound to spear enormous lingcod, “long and snakelike, with a large mouth of teeth.”
In his pensive moments Cook writes lovely prose about nature. You can learn a lot from him about where to find and how to harvest fifteen or so edible wild species–and how to prepare them for supper, too. Having worked to live up to his name, Cook closes each chapter with a good basic recipe. But Fat of the Land is more memoir than nature guide or cookbook (because the publisher perceived the book this way, apparently, the book lacks an index). Above all, Fat of the Land is a collection of stories of Cook’s adventures in the wild with beer-drinking buddies who bear names like Trouthole and Warpo. Foraging, to Cook, is a manly sport.
Foraging Langdon Cook–style is a sport that gets ever more difficult and expensive as our swelling human population and our pollutants limit safety, seasons, and harvest allowances. Cook doesn’t gloss over the ecological questions; he is conservation-minded. But he clearly enjoys the challenge of getting his tastes of the dwindling fat of our land.
Less intrepid readers, like me, may turn from Cook back to Euell Gibbons, who caught fish and hunted game but mostly gathered weeds—weeds like mustard and winter cress and chicory, wild cherries and elderberries and crabapples. These neglected plants still line our roadsides and decorate our vacant lots. We can pick their foliage and fruits and enjoy them, thank goodness, without fearing that we may never taste such things again.
UPDATE 2022: Langston Cook has since published two more books, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America and Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table.
Wild Fruit for a Tart and Tasty Jelly
In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.
If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.
In either its tall or short form (Mahonia aquifolium or M. nervosa), Oregon grape is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.
In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.
It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.
Oregon Grape Jelly
3 cups Oregon grape juice
2 ¼ cups sugar
Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.
Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.
Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.
A few days ago, while tearing up the sorrel that had invaded my rhubarb bed, I took care to separate the leaves from the creeping roots. The roots I left on the ground to rot; the leaves I took into the house for soup.
In past years I have grown French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), which has relatively large, shield-shaped leaves, but this Eurasian perennial has never survived our wet winters. I might one day try garden sorrel (R. acetosa), which has big leaves shaped like arrowheads and grows well in England. But for now I may as well enjoy my field sorrel, or sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), with its small, arrowhead-shaped leaves. Like rhubarb, its cousin, this spreading weed loves the bed I made by stacking newspapers and heaping mint pummy atop the native soil. If I let it, field sorrel will take over other half-shaded areas of the garden with rich, acidic soil.
Like rhubarb, all species of Rumex have abundant oxalic acid, which gives the leaves their sour, lemon-like flavor. These species are not to be confused, though, with Oxalis, trefoil wood sorrels, although Oxalis species, too, are edible. California children love to chew the stems of a yellow-flowered wood sorrel, which they call sour grass. According to Patience Gray (Honey from a Weed), the French once considered Oxalis the best sorrel for sorrel soup, or potage Germiny, which even today typically bears slivers of French sorrel in imitation of tiny wood sorrel stems, for the stems didn’t break down with pounding as the leaves did.
With a name that comes from the same root as sour, sorrel has a long history as both a medicinal and a culinary herb. It has been considered cooling and cleansing, a remedy for fever and for bladder, liver, kidney, and skin problems. The English have traditionally used garden sorrel in a sauce, called green sauce, to accompany meat. Other Europeans use sorrel as a stuffing for fish, as an addition to spinach soup, and, sauteed in butter, as a dressing for steamed potatoes. Sadly, in the United States sorrel hasn’t really caught on.
The cook preparing sorrel for the first time should remember three things: (1) You must use nonreactive cookware with this acidic vegetable. (2) Sorrel needs only very brief cooking. (3) Sorrel won’t keep its bright color. When cooked, the leaves turn gray-green.
I had picked sorrel leaves from the rhubarb bed once this past summer to make potage Germiny, a soup that’s truly cooling when it’s served chilled, as it typically is. In early November, the sorrel leaves were so tender and succulent that looking at them made my mouth water, but I wanted a warming soup for dinner. And I didn’t want a gray purée.
So I decided to combine the sorrel with potato and, instead of white or yellow globe onions, the giant scallions so abundant in my fall garden (leeks would have worked as well). The soup turned out green–well, moss green, but at least you couldn’t call it gray. With nothing to accompany it but homemade bread, it made a warming, satisfying, and delicious autumn meal.
Autumn Sorrel Soup
3 tablespoons butter
5 cups chopped scallions or leeks
1 quart chicken stock
1 medium-large russet potato, peeled and diced
2 quarts sorrel leaves
1 cup cream
Salt to taste
Melt the butter in a nonreactive pot, and gently cook the scallions or leeks in the butter until they are tender.
Add the stock. When it has nearly begun to boil, add the potato. Cover the pot, and cook the mixture until the potato pieces are tender.
Stir in the sorrel leaves. As soon as they are wilted, whirl the mixture until smooth in a blender. Check for any strings (from the sorrel stems); if you find them, you should strain the soup.
Stir in the cream and some salt. If needed, reheat the soup before serving.
Serves two as a main dish, four as a starter
While the violets continue to bloom, my daughter, Rebecca, suggested I describe how to candy them. Here’s what to do.
Pick 50 or so sweet violets, each with a bit of stem. If you can’t candy them right away, keep them covered and chilled for as long as several hours.
When you’re ready to proceed, lay a sheet of waxed paper on a plate. In a small bowl, beat an egg white with about a teaspoon of water. Have at hand small, soft pastry brush and a small bowl of extra-fine sugar, store-bought or ground in a blender or spice grinder from ordinary granulated sugar.
Holding a violet by the stem, brush the back of the petals with a thin coating of egg white. Then brush the front of the flower with egg white, spreading the petals as you do so. Sprinkle a think layer of sugar over every surface, lay the flower face up on the waxed paper, and pinch off the stem. Do the same with the rest of the blossoms, and then set the plate in a warm, dry place until the flowers are completely dry (for me, this means overnight on the pellet stove).
Store the dried blossoms in a small glass jar until you’re ready to use them. They look lovely on a cake or a plate of sweets.
There is little as pleasantly startling as the scent of blooming violets on a cold day in early spring. The little purple flowers have spread so thickly through my front lawn over the years that I now have nearly more violets than grass. But what a lovely ground cover, and what a cheering fragrance when nothing else is blooming but periwinkle and the early, scentless daffodils.
Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are edible; many people candy them or sprinkle them over salad greens. If you don’t mind spending twenty minutes or so picking the blossoms, you can also make them into syrup—syrup as amazing for its blue color as for its aroma. Come summer, you’ll want to try it in soda water, iced tea, or champagne.
The recipe that follows is adapted from my forthcoming Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
Sweet Violet Syrup
3 ounces (about 4 cups) stemmed violets
2 cups water
About 2 cups sugar
Combine the flowers and water in a saucepan. Simmer the contents, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Strain the mixture through a dampened jelly bag. You can squeeze the bag, when it’s cool enough to handle, to extract more liquid. Then measure the volume of the liquid, and combine it in a preserving pan with an equal volume of sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Raise the heat to high, and bring the syrup to a full boil.
Remove the pan from the heat. Funnel the syrup into a bottle. Store the bottle, tightly capped, in the refrigerator.
Makes about 3 cups