I know I know. There haven't been any winter foraging classes, but that doesn't mean the foraging has stopped. You can forage in ANY season, in ANY weather where we live. Below is a short list and a little info on what we've been on the lookout for!
Ground Ivy: Also known as creeping charlie, is a persistent member of the mint family that you can find sprouting new growth if you get a day or two above freezing. It’s not known to be a prized edible due to its pungent ivy notes and the slightly fuzzy leaves, but some people can’t get enough! The mild mintieness can be charming when thinly sliced and mixed with greens or in a dish with wild game. In its dried form it can help those suffering from muscle loss due to aging or ketogenic diets, and it’s a nice support for anyone with a chronic viral condition such as HSV-1, HSV-2, or Epstein-Barr.
Chickweed: This low growing green is known for its bright, fresh flavor, lime green color, and ability to grow anywhere except for around chickens because, well, chickens will eat it so fast you won’t know it was even growing! In the winter you don’t have to worry about eating bolted or tough greens since most growth won’t get to that point, and it’s a great natural micro-green for all you instagram chefs. Look for it in wooded hollows or near buildings where the temperature of the earth or building stays slightly warmer and blocks the wind.
Spicebush: Once the leaves have fallen, most people think of the forest as a dead zone for foraging, but flavor enthusiasts are keen to remember: spicebush is the ultimate flavoring. Every part of the tree has flavor, and it persists all 12 months of the year. You just have to know how to use it. Once your stash of frozen berries is all used up, go back to your spicebush stands and snap a few of the small twigs off to use for tea, syrups, and cocktails. A lightly flame-warmed spicebush twig as a stirrer for a spicebush syrup cocktail is our favorite way to use the twigs.
Sassafras: The flavor of juicyfruit bubblegum is a mystery, but sassafras twigs sure do remind us of that slightly tropical, berry-sweet-with-a-hint-of-citrus flavor. The key is to ID your tree before the leaves fall off, and then come back to during the cold months for a sweet pickup. Use them in cocktails like spicebush or go for the candy replacement and just chew on a twig.
There are FDA warnings against safrole, a fragrant oil which is in the bark of sassafras, but it’s highest concentration is in the root bark. The ban and carcinogenic effects of safrole are from a single study done on rats that were given high doses and developed liver cancer, but recent studies have not corroborated that finding especially since rats and humans absorb substances in different ways. Some say the ban is really because safrole, when combined in the right way chemically, can be a key component for club drugs such as MDMA, molly or ecstasy, but safrole is also found in high amounts in nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper which are all still legal.
What convinces us that it’s ok for moderate consumption is that the sale of sassafras root bark & sassafras leaf powder, called file powder used in traditional creole gumbo, are perfectly legal.
Wild Onion: We all know the pungent odor of the above ground green tubes of these easy to find alliums. If it smells like onion or garlic, it probably is onion or garlic. Look for the largest above ground green shoots since the diameter of the stalks are an indication of the bulb size, and use the bulbs and greens to flavor oil or cook them confit to utilize their small size with maximum flavor output.
Burdock: Curious about what burdock root tastes like? Try searching for it in a Korean or other Asian grocery stores. It’s a long, skinny tap-root that takes some serious skill to pry out from the ground, but it’s prized for its earthy sweetness which is balanced by mild bitter notes. Don’t think of bitter as an enemy. It’s what makes chocolate so tasty! You can roast it like a carrot, pickle it like a radish, put it in a soup like chunky potatoes, braise it like meat or stir fry it like every vegetable except this one will stay just a little crunchy through it all.
Wild Ginger: This heart shaped beauty is a prize in the forest, but it can be tricky to ID, especially when the leaves are gone! At first glance it looks like violets, but the shape is just a bit different. The roots are where the “ginger” name comes from, and they were traditionally dug, dried, and ground by the Native Americans. It’s gaining popularity, and as such it’s become a threatened species in Maine. If it grows on your property, be sure to only take a small percentage for personal use!
Cattail Rhizomes: The cattail is one of those plants that is surprisingly edible in almost all of its stages, but it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. The rhizomes, or roots, of the cattail have been a source of starch & gluten used in baking since paleolithic times! It may have been simpler back then before you had to worry about water quality, but that’s the biggest factor in safely collecting the roots. Once you have them, peel and wash, then break them apart in a bowl of water allowing the starch to separate from the fiber. Others will pound to release the starch, but either way, separate out the fibers and leave a water/starch slurry. Then dehydrate and use!
Now is the time to get sap for syrup as the trees are JUST starting to wake up! It’s a simple process of drilling a hole, inserting a hollow tube (the tap) at an angle, hanging a pail from the tap to collect syrup, and boiling. Now what they don’t tell you is just how much pure sap you need to make a syrup! We recommend trying out this activity with a local park or community farm where they have the resources to boil hundreds of gallons outside over a fire.
How many gallons of sap does it take to make 1 pint of syrup?
Maple : 5
Birch : 14
Black Walnut : 7
Box Elder : 15
Sycamore : 12.5
Blewit: Yea, it's not really known as being a "winter" mushroom, but the first part of the winter was SO mild that they kept showing up.... in an abandoned neighbor's yard, no less. They're one of the mushrooms with a "fruity" smell.
Woodear: These are year round beauties. If they look dehydrated it's not a problem. Wait for it to rain or the snow to melt, and they will rehydrate!
Winter Oyster: If you feel comfortable finding summer oysters, winter ones will be even better. Not sure if you want to try them? Try the oysters you find in the grocery store to see if the texture and flavor suit you because the wild ones are exactly the same.