A Forager's Lament
|Features - The Home Farmer|
|Written by David Craft|
There is an isolated patch of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) along the Charles River in Boston. They can be seen in the early spring, but soon they get covered up by the desert false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) that grows all along the banks. At the end of fall, when all the indigo has been cut back, the nettles make a brief reappearance. Many edible spring greens make a fall reappearance in fact. There is still enough warmth so that their leaves do not freeze, and the leaves of the tall trees and the shrubs that have been shading them all summer have dropped away, so they come out again to gather the last of the fall sunlight and fatten their roots. And so even in early December, even after a little snow, I can still go out and gather some nettles, acorns (Quercus sp.), curly dock (Rumex crispus), dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) and ox-eye daisy greens (Leucanthemum vulgare). While the ground is not yet frozen, burdock root (Arctium lappa) and evening primrose root (Oenothera biennis) are available too.
By the time March rolls around, evening primrose rosettes are back out, making January and February the only two full months of the forager's lament. I alleviate the lament by stocking up for the winter months by jarring, pickling, drying, and freezing. A bag of acorns currently sits in my freezer, awaiting an afternoon when I have the motivation to process them. If they tasted better and required less boiling to remove the tannins, one would likely be able to find acorn hulling devices at your local kitchen gadget store. As it stands though, the hulling of acorns is a labor intensive process, one that certainly benefits by a group of eager friends (friends who have never shucked acorns before, because those who have would not be eager). A hammer and a swift whack, and then pulling out the nut meat by hand, is all it takes for each one, but if you are going to collect acorns, you may as well make it worth it by collecting a lot of them, and then, after shucking 50 or so, fingers get a bit raw. After getting them out of their shells, I grind them to a coarse meal and boil them in several changes of water until most of the bitterness is gone. Rather than drying them, I just put them directly into mason jars and into my freezer, and add the meal to home made breads over the next months.
Whatever else I jar – fruit, mainly – usually ends up in the freezer because I'm too rushed to do a good grandmotherly job with the sterilization process. Another easier preservation technique is food drying, and I bought a cheap food dryer on Craigslist last year. This particular food dryer is nothing more than a heating element upon which 8 trays (with air holes in them) are stacked, but it still does the trick for drying fruits and for drying herbs for tea. The easiest and tastiest local herb to stock up on is wild mint (Mentha sp.), easy to identify because of its square stems and the smell of its crushed leaves. It grows profusely along the stream that cuts through the Arnold Arboretum. Bunches of these stems and leaves go into the food dryer trays and in about 2 hours they are dried and ready for winter storage in glass jars. For apples, I do not bother peeling them. Instead, I just core them, slice them into 1/8th inch slices and dry them for about 6 hours, rotating the order of the trays every couple of hours.
Freezers and cabinets tend to be little black holes in our kitchens, amassing way more food then they should be able to. When winter sets in I turn to foraging my own freezer. Sometimes I feel like I could use a different type of plant guide book here; one that helps me identify exactly what it is that I am pulling out of that dark netherworld of the freezer. This freezer and cabinet foraging is not quite as good for the soul as is a walk along the Charles River, but it works for me in January and February, and reminds me of all the good things out there, buried under the snow, waiting to come up once again and fill our urban space with fragrance, beauty, and nourishment.
David Craft is an urban forager living in Cambridge. He is at work on a book, Urban Foraging, which covers over 35 plants and mushrooms that can be found within the city limits. The book is due out this spring, around the time Japanese knotweed is ready for harvest.