A few years ago, Steve Dahlberg, one of the organizers of the Wild Food Summit in Minnesota, said, “Up here, we have two seasons – winter, and getting-ready-for-winter.” His tone was both humorous and matter-of-fact and I still laugh at the truth to his statement.
For those of us who rely heavily on wild foods, harvesting and preserving starts as soon as the ground has thawed. We begin our harvest season with the gathering of roots before their stored energy and nutrients are transformed into growing shoots and leaves. We then stock up on shoots and leaves while they are still young and tender. Before long, it’s time to turn our attention to flowers and seeds, and then back to roots again, as the plants, themselves, prepare for winter.
I love winter, if only because I can enjoy the fruits of my labour without any additional effort. I can wander aimlessly through fields and woods and scout out new patches with little desire to harvest anything. Don’t get me wrong – I live for gathering things – but anyone who has ever harvested anything knows that every hour spent gathering means 1-3 hours back at headquarters, cleaning and preserving the harvest, which, as far as I’m concerned, is worth every effort.
Readers may already know that my intake of produce is entirely dependent on what I harvest over the summer. As I mentioned in a previous article (“Sharing a Mindful Harvest”), each year, a different assortment of wild edibles fills my pantry. Many are what I consider staples – stinging nettle, burdock and dandelion roots, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, acorns, cattail tops, and various types of wild mushrooms and berries. These are the plants that are the most versatile and that I use regularly in one form or another. Others, such as wild mint, red clover flowers, sweet flag, St. John’s Wort, wild ginger, bergamot and giant hyssop are used less regularly as spices, in “specialty” dishes, or for medicinal purposes.
I enjoy coming up with new meal and flavour combinations, some of which are worth repeating and recommending to others. Recently, I discovered that powdered hemlock tree needles add a sweet and delectable flavour to buckwheat pancakes. It also fills the room with a refreshing aroma while the pancakes are frying!
My food choices are usually based on what I feel like eating – a reflection of what my body needs at the moment. It may be something that’s high in protein, acidic, sweet, starchy, light, mineral rich, or any combination thereof. I rummage through my pantry and combine ingredients to satisfy these needs.
Sometimes they involve simple teas, like the deliciously sweet and rich combo of rose hips and sweet cicely or the cleansing and nourishing mix of burdock, dandelion and red clover. Sometimes they involve strange but surprisingly good all-in-one dishes, like wild rice or quinoa topped with chopped hazelnuts, wild blueberries and stinging nettle flooded with Manitoba maple syrup. Even toast with sweet cicely-infused honey drizzled over nut butter and chopped stinging nettle is surprisingly good!
Most of the time, my goal is to add subtle, but complementary, flavours to dishes while maximizing the nutrient density of each meal. When making a pizza, for instance, not only do I use wild mushrooms (usually ink caps) as a topping, I will also add wild mushroom powder or juice (a by-product of frying the watery ink cap mushrooms) to the crust and tomato sauce.
It is interesting how the flavour of some plants will change, depending on how you use them. Stinging nettle, for example, has a seaweed-like flavour when added to soups and such, yet when added to muffins and pancakes, small green flecks are the only sign of its presence. If the full flavour of stinging nettle is not what I’m after, I will add it, finely chopped or powdered, to my pizza crust where I can still reap the nutritional benefit without the flavour and texture that would be so obvious if it were on top.
For me, winter is a time for experimenting and for exploring another side of nature. With wild edibles already preserved in a way that makes them quick and easy to use, I can concoct new recipes or tweak old ones that so they contain the flavours of different seasons, like my latest wintergreen and wild blueberry jam. It is a fun season full of possibilities. Who says food is not meant to be played with?
Botanist and founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. She also sells sustainably wild harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit her WEBSITE and Prairie Shore Botanicals’ page on Facebook.