Sharon January 13th, 2009
A lot of people don’t have gardens, and some never will. Or perhaps they have small community gardens, small yards or containers that won’t allow them to produce as much food as they need. One of the strategies you can use to increase your available space is to forage – to make use of edible plants that are growing wild.
I’ve written a bit about how foraging for food is actually quite contiguous with agriculture here: http://sharonastyk.com/2008/05/19/farmer-hunter-gatherer/.
I thought it would be useful to think about ways to preserve foraged foods. But first, let’s start with the basics of foraging.
My three favorite foraging books are these. First, Samuel Thayer’s _The Forager’s Harvest_, which focuses on a band of about 40 common wild plants. He also includes a discussion of storing and preserving those foods. Very useful, great pictures, lots of details, honest discussion of what tastes good, rather than being merely edible.
Next, there “Wildman” Steve Brill’s great book _Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places_. Very clear, very well written, lots of good common sense information. Despite the line drawings, he’s very good on identification. He also has a great website here: http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/
My third favorite isn’t a foraging book at all – it is _Weeds of the Northeast_ by Uva, Neal and DiTomaso. This book is obviously only useful to people who live, well, in the Northeast, although there are similar books for other regions. The book doesn’t discuss edibility at all – its virtue lies in its pictures and detailed information about hundreds of weedy plants, some of which are edible. It shows plants at every stage of growth, and is a great supplement when you are trying to figure out “is that a….”
It is also worth noting that not all “wild” plants are truly wild (in fact, many plants that enjoy disturbed environments were brought for agricultural or ornamental purpose) – foraging doesn’t necessarily mean figuring out what wild lettuce is – it can mean knocking on the door of that house with the apples or oranges that is letting them drop on the ground and asking if they mind if you pick up the drops. Many people don’t make full use of edible foods that they plant on purpose - or they may not realize that ornamentals produce edibles.
It goes without saying that you should use common sense – don’t forage in areas that are routinely sprayed (you can call your town or city to get this information), wash everything under running water to remove traces of icky things, don’t eat anything you aren’t sure is safe, take lessons if you are going to mess with things for which there are a lot of toxic equivalents (I stay away from all mushrooms I’m not intimately familiar with and all of the wild carrot relatives (cow parsnip, water hemlock, poison hemlock, wild carrot, fool’s parsley), because it is possible to end up eating something very poisonous by doing so, and unless you are way better at this than me, I suggest you do the same), be polite and ask if you are using private property, try a little of something before you dive into it whole hog, to test for allergies, don’t take all of any plant or forage for rare plants.
Ok, now, what do you do with your foraged foods once you’ve got them?
Well, for some foods, it will be possible to store them in their natural state in a root cellar, or even on a shelf. Nuts, for example, can be stored, well, like nuts, in the shell, or shelled and frozen. Acorns can be stored as is. Wild apples and pears are stored like apples and pears, although generally the wild varieties aren’t great keepers, I find – maybe better to make dried apples or applesauce. Wild berries are often good made into jam, dried or made into wine.
Many wild foods are greens, and the greens generally have more nutritional value than comparable conventional greens. This makes them great candidates for preservation by lactofermentation – the bitterness of some wild greens is actually a lovely counterpart of the sourness of lactofermentation. We make dandelion and nettle kimchi in spring for example.
The other good use for these greens is drying – many of the most nutritious greens make an excellent, highly nutritious decoction or tea for herbal health. We store both of the above greens as tea herbs by hanging and drying them. I dry some burdock leaves for the bunnies and goats who love them (they are awfully bitter to human tastes) as well. Lambs quarters dries gorgeously and can be tossed back into soups or mixed into mac and cheese, and chickweed is great thrown into soup.
Wild herbs often dry well too – mint runs wild in my damp backyard, and wild thyme through a neighboring park. Put them up for tea – often they have more essential oils than the cultivated version.
Many wild berries are extremely seedy and small, and often extremely sour. The best use for them is either wine (chokecherry wine is great!) or jellies, where the fruit itself is strained out. You can also cook them with a thickener and use a food mill to strain out pits and seeds, and make pie filling that way and can it.
Making juices is another option – sumac lemonade, for example, can be made by soaking sumac berries before they get bitter (just after they turn red) for a while, sweetening it, and then canning the juice for 15 minutes in a water bath canner. We’ve been known to make wild grape juice as well, and a friend of mine make highbush cranberry juice.
Many mushrooms are good dried – the only mushroom I really feel comfortable foraging at this point is morels, and we dry them. I need to take a mushrooming class – but for those with a better skill set, many can be dried or pickled.
You can dehydrate ramps and wild garlic for a lovely, strong garlicky flavor. I’ve made wild garlic vinegar also, which is terrific.
Siberian Elm samaras, when harvested dry can be left to dry a bit more and stored like any legume for a months in a jar. So will ground peanuts or ground beans.
Burdock roots will keep for some weeks in a cold spot, and also dehydrate extremely well. Cattail roots can be dried and pounded to create an edible starch. Wild jerusalem artichokes keep like the fresh ones, in a root cellar. Wild ginger roots can also be dried and used as a seasoning.
Rose hips keep large quantities of vitamin C even when dehydrated, as will elderberries berries.
Common plantain seeds dry well when the “rattails” are cut off and hung to dry. We give a lot of them to the birds in winter, but a related species is the main ingredient in metamucil, so you can guess what purpose they serve.
Chicory root can be roasted, and then dehydrated, to make a long keeping coffee substitute.
I’m told that fiddleheads freeze extremely well (thanks Kathy!)
Ok, I’m sure the rest of you have suggestions that I’ve forgotten – what wild foods do you preserve and store?