Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: March, Weeks 2-3

My field of vision has been rather narrow lately, so it came as a bit of a surprise to walk through the neighborhood on Friday and find loads of little lavender crocuses sprinkled across a lawn, followed by creamy white snowdrops in full bloom and tiny buds developing on a favorite lilac bush.

The world is greening up all around us, and this weekend we've even had the warmer weather to go with it. What a relief!

Since I've had other calls on my time of late, I've decided that for March I would combine the two Preserving the Seasons weekly posts and only give you one thing to think about: foraging and preserving wild edibles. But I can assure you, there's plenty here to keep you going for the rest of the month!

As you've learned by now, I've come to enjoy foraging for fresh little wild greens come early spring. (And I'm not alone: even over at Grist there's been talk of wild greens!) At this time of year, I can find little sprawling chickweed creating mats of brilliant green over the hillsides, patches of jewel-like violets, young dandelion leaves (and, soon, blossoms for wine), and prickly emerald green nettles. Each of these greens are loaded with nutrients, beginning with the vitamin C we often reach for in winter and including (in all cases but the violets) B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, and other potent nutrients. If you're willing to try foraged greens early in the year, you'll be rewarded by the fresh flavor and the burst of good nutrition!

Soon to follow, I'll find lambs' quarters popping up in the garden, wild garlic on the hillside at the Farm, refreshing and fiber-filled plantain; then lemony sour sorrel, clusters of wild berries, and, by fall, rich and woodsy tasting nuts like black walnuts and hickories.

There's a feast out there in your backyard! If you need help identifying these treasures, I recommend "Wildman" Steve Brill's website and book (Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants), but you can also learn more from Wild Food Adventures.

But once you've identified these greens -- and realized that you actually have an overabundance of them -- how can you preserve them for later in the year?

First consider your basic preservation techniques (as Sharon has done in more detail). Most of the greens dry well or freeze well, especially the hearty greens like nettles, lambs' quarters, and dandelion. (I dried bunches of nettles last summer to use for a tonifying herbal tea, something I reach for often right now to help me deal with stress.) Chickweed won't dry or freeze well, but it does make a lovely pesto (perhaps with some wild garlic?) that can be frozen in cubes for easy use.

Wild berries, like their domesticated cousins, can be made into jam and canned, or they can be frozen and thrown into baked goods later. Don't forget about the blossoms of some of those wild edibles: dandelion blossoms make a wonderful wine, violet blossoms can be candied and frozen (or frozen into ice cubes for a party punch), and I suspect that a few blossoms of garlic mustard could infuse a vinegar or olive oil with a lot of kick!

In the fall, when you gather nuts from these wild trees, you can store them in the shell (in cold storage) or remove them from the shells and freeze them in bags or jars.

If, like me, you appreciate herbal medicine, you might read up on the medicinal properties of some of these wild edibles and not only dry them for tisanes but also make vinegars, oils, or tinctures (usually infusions with vodka as the base). Several good herbal books can give you further information on how to make these; I'm not a qualified herbalist and haven't really practiced enough in my own pottering way to feel confident in telling you how to do it.

Once you get started with wild foods, though, you may find you never turn back! I find nature hikes to be so much more interesting now that I know more of the "wildflowers" and "weeds" and can begin to guess at the origins of others. As I explore more of the Farm this year, I hope to become familiar with plants such as sumac, sassafras, hickory, and hawthorn, all of which I've spotted but haven't yet tried.

Reminders to those who start foraging: do NOT eat wild plants found in areas that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. If you're foraging or gleaning on private property, ask permission first. And if you're unsure about the identification of something, don't eat it. Some wild edibles have poisonous look-alikes (though not, I think, any of the ones I've listed here). Read up on wild foods first, then start carefully or with a guide. But don't let this frighten you: it can be remarkably easy to identify more plants than you can imagine!

That should give you plenty to play with this month, between reading, exploring, eating, and preserving wild foods.

(And thanks for your patience until things slow down for me around here!)

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At 3/18/2009 1:36 PM, Blogger Tara said...

I've often thought about foraging in my own yard, but then I'll see a stray dog or cat doing its thing out there or, worse yet, a teenager walk along and spit (eewww!) and I think again. Even though I'd wash it, I just can't get past that...
I really like the idea though.

At 3/18/2009 1:45 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

That is true, Tara. I had a lemon balm patch I had to give up on after I found a neighborhood cat's litter offering in it. It's considerably easier to forage at the Farm or within the confines of the garden.

At 3/18/2009 3:53 PM, Blogger Kelly said...

I've been monitoring the dandelion growth in the yard for days, but they're still looking like they need a few more days of warmth before they're ready to be my spring tonic. I need to get out my Peterson's guide and figure out what else is around here for picking... yay spring!

At 3/18/2009 7:00 PM, Anonymous Janet said...

Glad to see you back, Jennifer. I've been thinking about you. Hope you have just the tonics you need and hope your parents are doing well.

At 3/19/2009 7:07 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Not sure if I'll make dandelion wine this year, Kelly, but I do think one of these days I need to forage some of the greens. And I keep seeing this lovely patch of chickweed outside the building at work, but I dare not nibble since I know the grounds crew sprays regularly! (Boo hiss!)

Thanks, Janet. I'm not quite up to speed yet with the writing -- too much else going on, and not just with the folks -- but hope to ease back into it soon. And yes, my folks are doing well and are happy to be back together again.

At 3/19/2009 7:10 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Oh, and for those of you not keeping up with some of the excellent sites in the sidebar, Jeff Cox has just posted about spring tonics made from wild edibles over at OrganicToBe. Great minds thinking alike? :-)


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