Tag Archives: Foraging

A Spoonful of Elderflower Sugar

Preparing to infuse sugar

This Will Help the Medicine Go Down

I have been frantically trying to preserve a lot of elderflowers. Last weekend, the Big Guy and I went out picking elderflowers and rose petals.

I greedily decided to try a second champagne recipe, and went off picking without really reading how much I would need. The recipe I chose to use required far less than I had imagined, so I had a lot leftover.  Of course, not being one to waste them, I have lots of recipes to share in the next few days. I’m waiting for some of them to finish brewing.

However, if you are going to be able to take advantage of these this year, you can still find some flower bracts now, but we are definitely coming towards the end of their display, at least here in the Netherlands. Go out and get some, and keep them in the fridge for some of the elderflower recipes to follow.

The simplest thing to do to preserve the flavour of these short-lived but beautiful flowers is to infuse sugar with them, in a similar way to the vanilla sugar that makes the use of high quality vanilla beans worthwhile.

The elderflower sugar keeps well and is a lovely reminder of the early summer when the flowers are in full bloom. You can use it in cakes, biscuits and many other things, and I will be experimenting with some baking in the coming weeks. If you only have enough elderflowers for one more thing, this is the stepping-stone recipe you should probably make.

And this is how you do it:

Get a large glass jar with a lid. The amount of flower bracts that you will need will be determined by the size of the jar.

Pick through elderflower heads, and remove any brown flowers or bits. Remove the flowers from their stalks. This is easily done, by gripping the stalk between your thumb and forefinger, and pushing them down to the flowers. They will pop off with very little pressure.

You need to keep as much of the pollen as possible, because that is where the flavour is, so try to get the blooms in the jar as you strip them from the stalks.

Keep going until you have filled about a quarter of the jar. Top up the rest with the sugar, give it a stir and leave it to infuse for at least 3-4 days.

Sieve out the flowers before use.

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Respect Your Elders

Elderflower cordial

Extending the seasons

It is that glorious time of the year when lots of delicious produce is in season. In the garden broad beans, the last of the asparagus, courgettes, the very first tomatoes (if you can grow them under glass); and in the hedgerow you will find nettles, dock, sorrel, mallow, and many other delicious treats. It is also your shortish window for the elderflower.

Gathering Elderflowers

Harvest Festival!

The elder has been used and revered for centuries. It has provided stakes, shelter, medicine, fuel and food to animals and man since prehistoric times. There is a lot of folklore and superstition around the elder, and in some places people would leave offerings for the Elder Mother before they picked from the tree.

Harvested elderflowers

An Exuberance of Elderflowers

In early summer, hedgerows froth with white elder flowers at hedge height, and moon daisies at their feet. It is a time of great potential, and great recipes. Although, it is also important to remember that the potential of this tree is not just about summer, but that there are also good things to be had at all stages of fruiting, as well as the berries being a valuable food supply for many bird species, who will be laying down reserves for the coming winter.

Luckily, the elder is ubiquitous in most parts of Europe, and they seed themselves easily, even in places where there is no tradition of a hedgerow (such as the Netherlands). As long as you don’t take all of the blooms from a single tree or shrub, there will be plenty left throughout mid-May to mid-June to allow for your own use of elderberries and for the birds, as well as allowing the tree to reproduce.

This year, I have also learned some other tricks from wise women on Twitter about uses for this wonderful tree.  Cally from Country Gate mentioned that elder leaves make a good pesticide against aphids. I have been plagued by them this year, seemingly more so than in previous years. She says to simmer 500 g of elder leaves in 3.5 l of water (use an old saucepan if you can for this), and replace any water lost as steam. Strain, and bottle. This concoction should keep for 3 months, and is great for aphids.

Elder buds

Bud of Delights

Liz from Forage also mentioned that the buds of elderflowers are delicious in salads and omelettes, and lend a smoky flavour to a dish. I picked a couple of elderflower brackets in bud to test this, and they are really very good in an omelette aux fines herbes. Although it is probably a little late in the year to get the buds now, I am definitely going to play a little more with this next year.

When picking the flowers, try to go in the morning, on a sunny day, when the pollen levels will be at their highest. Try to pick fresh, white brackets with no brown patches or blemishes, as these have the best taste. Elderflowers will keep for a couple of days, but they start to go brown quickly, and will deposit pollen and nectar, which is essential for the flavour, so it is best to try to use them on the day that they are picked.

This is my recipe for elderflower cordial. I originally cut it from a reader’s letter to the Guardian, years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have that cutting anymore, so I don’t know the name of the person who sent it in. As you will see, the recipe is basically based around the number four, so once you get the amounts, then you will understand why I have misplaced the clipping.

Elderflower cordial is a great way to preserve the delicate taste of summer, and is the basis of many things, from refreshing drinks and summery cocktails, to use with other fruits and in many desserts.

I’m going to be writing about some of my elderflower cordial recipes in the coming months, but I’d really love to hear how you use it in your recipes, in the the comments.

Steeping elderflower cordial

Steeping to Success

Recipe: Elderflower Cordial

Ingredients

40 elderflower bracts

4 pints boiling water

4 lb (1.8 kg) sugar

2 lemons, sliced

4 tsp citric acid.

Method

I often only have raw cane sugar in the house, which makes the cordial slightly darker than you may be used to – it still tastes delicious, but most people use white sugar.

You can get citric acid from home-brew shops and possibly the chemist (in the UK). If you cannot find citric acid, then add the juice of another lemon. If you use this method, I would recommend freezing the cordial once bottled, to make sure that your cordial does not go mouldy.

Method

Steep the blooms in the boiling water in a large, non-corrosive container.

Add the sugar, lemons and citric acid, and stir until the sugar has all dissolved.

Cover with a tea towel, and leave in a place that you will walk past daily. Leave for four days at room temperature, stirring well twice a day.

Sterilise some bottles, and a funnel. You can use new ones, or old oil, vodka or screw-top wine bottles will also be fine. I find that bottles are much less likely to get thoroughly clean in a dish washer, so I clean mine by hand with a long bottle brush, then I sterilise them with campden tablets, which are also available from home-brew suppliers. This recipe makes a little over 4 l, so you will need an appropriate number, plus one for luck.

Strain the elderflower through muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.

This should keep for up to a year. Once it is opened, store the bottle in the fridge.

Then pour yourself a nice tall glass of diluted cordial, add mint and some ice, and think about what recipes you could use the cordial in.

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A Test of My Nettle!

Edible hedgerow

An Edible Hedgerow

I love nettles – in tea, as plant food, in pesto.My favourite thing to do is to eat them as a vegetable,briefly wilted with chopped shallot that has been softened in butter. One of my favourite foods, made even better that they are in plentiful supply.

There are loads of good things about nettles: they are high in protein, and fibre, and rich in iron and vitamins A and K; they are a brilliant wildlife habitat; you are highly unlikely to get into trouble for picking them (although people might think that you are a little bit mad); and you get a double hit on them (in the wild), as you can pick them in the spring, and again in autumn. They are also really easy to identify.

As well as following some basic foraging rules, you will also need long sleeves and rubber gloves if you don’t want to get stung!

Flowering nettle

Too Late for this Nettle

If you are going for the wild variety, we are drawing towards the end of the first flush for this year. When the flower heads appear, almost like catkins (see above), the nettles will develop calcium carbonate crystals in the leaves, which are unpleasant to eat. However, if you strim back nettles, then they will grow fresh and you can eat them again. If you look carefully, you should still find some that are yet to flower, so just pick those.

Picking the nettle tips

Taking the Tips!

Because of the aforementioned abundance of wildlife, and the fact that even the tallest dog can’t reach, only pick the tips and the first two leaf bracts after them. These leaves won’t be tough, as some of the older leaves might.

I was originally going to enter this recipe into  Simple and in Season, for May, but the recipe needed a bit more testing. The first version I did was a bit mushy, so I didn’t make it. I am entering it for this month instead. Ren Behan at Fabulicious Food runs this challenge, and this month it is being hosted by Laura at How to Cook Good Food.

I love to entertain, and I also love to forage. I don’t often combine the two (unless it is booze) because I often think that people might not like the idea. However, I was having a vegan friend over for dinner, so many of my fall-back staples were off the menu. I had some freshly picked nettles, and I saw that Carl Legge had tweeted a link to his nettle gnocchi recipe. I was inspired, but couldn’t use the recipe, because he uses an egg as a binder. Instead, I have played with this a bit. I have to admit that I did not add enough flour to the first recipe, which was why it didn’t hold its shape. I apologise to my friends who had this as a starter that day, but I have improved on it now, to give the recipe below.

Jo's Version of Mr Potato Head

Soggy Gnocchi Disappointment: an Impressionist View

To make up for the gnocchi, Jo entertained us all with her food faces. This was a stray potato, with her partner as a size comparison.

Nettles go well with tomato sauces, but I decided that I was going to use a really simple pasta sauce (not at all traditional for gnocchi, but it went really well) of oil, chilli flakes and garlic.

This recipe is a good introduction to foraging, if you have always fancied giving it a go, but not dared so far. Nettles are easily accessible, and much tastier than you might think.

Nettle Gnocchi and Salad

Nourishing Nettles

Recipe: Vegan Nettle Gnocchi

Ingredients

200 g nettle tops, washed well in cold water

500 g floury potatoes. You want a variety that makes good mash

300 g plain flour, plus more for dusting

1 tbsp hemp oil (optional)

Salt

Pepper

You can also add spices to the dough, if you like, nutmeg is particularly good.

For the pasta sauce:

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced

Pinch of dried pepper flakes

Method

Firstly, remove the nettle stalks and discard.

Put the potatoes, with their skins on, in plenty of cold water and boil until they are just done and you can pierce to the middle. This should help stop them getting waterlogged, but only if they don’t overcook.Allow to cool slightly, then peel and mash them, preferably in a potato ricer or food mill, if you have one.

Add the nettles to boiling water and cook off briefly, the exact time will depend on the age of your nettles. Drain them, but don’t discard the cooking liquid. This is nettle tea, which is refreshing and all sorts of  good for you. You can drink it hot or cold, and it keeps well in the fridge.

Nettles retain more water than spinach, so use the back of a spoon and press them quite hard to get the liquid out of the leaves. Chop them roughly and mix well with the mashed potato, hemp oil, some salt and pepper, and any spices you are using.

An idea of how the  dough should look

The Dough Should Hold its Form Really Well

The exact amount of flour that you need will depend on the nettle and potato mix on the day. Initially, I used way too little, and the gnocchi were soggy. The best way around this is to tip the potato and nettle mix onto a floured surface, then add the flour, a little at a time and mix in well. You want to form a quite stiff dough, then knead it well. If you are unsure if there is enough flour, drop a test piece into some boiling water and cook for a couple of minutes. If it retains its shape, you have enough.

Bite sized gnocchi pieces

Bite Sized

Cut the dough into four. Flour your surface , and roll each piece of dough into a sausage 2-3 cm  in diameter. Cut these into 2-3 cm pieces. It is traditional to press a fork into each small piece to score it. The reason often given for this is so that a sauce can sit in the grooves. This is a great tip for a thicker sauce, like a tomato sauce or a ragù, but not really necessary for the sauce I used. I did it anyway, for aesthetics.

Marking grooves in the gnocchi to hold a sauce

Get Into the Groove

Get a fairly large pan of salted water to a rapid boil, and then drop the gnocchi in. They will take literally minutes to cook, so don’t be tempted to go and check e-mail or something similar.

The Finished Nettle Gnocchi

The Finished Product

For the sauce, gently heat the oil and garlic until the garlic starts to brown. Then add the chilli flakes. This sauce will take about the same time as the gnocchi, which will be cooked when they float. Drain, toss in the sauce, and serve immediately.

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We Need to Talk About Salad

Wild Garlic & Qualis Egg Salad With Wild Garlic Pesto

Salad as Celebration

I have been neglectful of my salad posts and chat of late, which I undertook to do as part of the 52 Week Salad Challenge that was issued by Michelle at Veg Plotting. This is not to say that I have not been diligently sowing, foraging and eating at least one salad a week, but I have been away a lot of late, and even without internet for a lot of it (and enjoyed it, actually!) so I haven’t really had the time to tweet and post about it in time for the monthly Salad Days round up that Michelle takes such care over every month.

To make amends, I am doing a bit of a salad round up in time for this week’s Salad Days, and I look forward to reading all of the links and the discussions from all of the others who are joining in with the challenge on Friday.

Where to start then? The last time I blogged specifically for the challenge (as opposed to cheekily tagging it onto other posts), I had been finding and eating the weeds in my garden.

Clockwise from right: Hairy Bittercress, Wood Sorrel, Chickweed

Salad as Weeding

Clockwise from right: hairy bittercress, wood sorrel*, chickweed.

The weeds have continued to form a part of my salads, but since then, the hedgerows have burst forth, and there has been plenty to eat, from there and from my garden.

Wild Garlic

Salad as Wild Food

We have been eating hedgerow staples, such as the carpets of wild garlic (pictured, in my favourite spot), sorrel*, jack in the hedge (aka garlic mustard), and nettles. all of these have appeared in a variety of tarts, salads, fritters and as side dishes in their own right.

The first of these was the wild garlic. For my celebratory birthday meal, back in March, I made a starter of poached quails egg on a bed of salad, including wild garlic leaves. I dressed this with a really lovely wild garlic pesto, which used hazelnuts instead of the ubiquitous pine nuts. The quail’s eggs are slightly richer, and much smaller than hen’s eggs, and the soft yolks were a perfect foil to the pesto.

At the permaculture course I was eating a variety of the salads that they grew there, as well as a number of edible flowers, including nasturtium, herb flowers, those from the various brassicas that had been allowed to go to seed, and borage. If you have never eaten a borage flower, I suggest you give them a go, they are surprising, they taste almost like cucumber, and are a lovely bite to have in a salad. I also found some very old borage seed this year, which I have given a go. I was given this packet of seeds years ago, so I have lost nothing if they don’t come up, and if they do, they will form part of the new polyveg system I am putting in place this year. Hopefully, it will seed itself and attract bees as well as looking beautiful and being really tasty. Apparently, it is a good pot herb to. If the seeds are too old to germinate, then I’ll get some for next year in any case.

Duck Salad

Salad as a Project

I have already told you about the duck salad I made as part of my duck week. On the 2nd week of April, we held our first barbecue of the year, by way of a baby shower for my friend. It was flipping freezing, but it was dry, and a good time was had by all. I made my go-to barbecue salad of radish, cucumber, feta, parsley and mint. This is based on a quick and easy dish by Nigel Slater. I was very proud to be able to feed my guests with homegrown parsley and radishes in this salad. It went down so well, I didn’t manage to get any pictures.

Things are continuing apace in the garden. I have been eating lots of rocket and cut and come agains, as well as the odd leaf chicory. Because of my desire to embark on a polyveg system, I have also been sowing a number of other salad things this year. I have multiple lettuces, beets, and turnips for some tasty salads, well as a number of herbs. I have also discovered that you can eat poached egg plants, so I’m going to give them a go. Inspired by all the people following the Salad Challenge, I’m also giving a few new leaves a go – notably some of the chinese greens, and shiso. I also got hold of some morning glory, which features in Japanese cuisine quite a lot, I think. I am hoping this is the right one, as I really enjoyed it in soups and salads when I was over there a couple of years ago.

Although I love foraging, I would love to be able to grow sorrel in my garden. To date, I have been unsuccessful, although the partially shady conditions are more favourable for me growing sorrel than tomatoes (which I can manage). I have tried for the past three years to no avail. Do any of you have any tips? I don’t even think I have seen any germination. Do you pre-soak? I have been using the same packet, and suspect that it may all be sterile, but any other ideas will be gratefully received. I hate to see seeds go to waste as much as I do food!

Garden Salad with Caesar Dressing

Salad as Supper

Tonight’s effort was garden leaves and some of the aforementioned weeds (all my own), with a mix of tomatoes, cucumber, broad beans and asparagus (sadly not my own, mine aren’t ready yet, and the asparagus won’t be available this year) in a caesar dressing. I cannot really call this a caesar salad though, since it didn’t have any romaine lettuce, which I planted a bit late, and haven’t even made decent baby gems yet. I ate it with a potato salad and a soft-boiled egg, and it really hit the spot – satisfying, yet cool for the hottest day of the year so far.

One of the great benefits of growing-your-own is the tops off the broad beans. Mine are almost ready, although the cold spell put them back somewhat. You can hopefully expect them in a salad post very soon.

* Please note that neither wood sorrel or sorrel should be eaten in large quantities, due to containing oxalic acid, which can inhibit calcium uptake by the body. They can aggravate kidney stones, gout, rheumatism, arthritis and hyperacidity, so should be avoided by people with those conditions. The amount of oxalic acid does reduce with cooking, but wood sorrel would wilt to nothing at all, as the leaves are not very big in the first place.

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Foraging: Free Food or Foolish Foray?

Nature's Larder

I really enjoy rootling about in the countryside to find plants that I can eat. I love nature, and all the things in it, so I have invested time in learning common edible species, and then going out to find them. I often take the Big Guy, but am also happy to go alone, although a dog would be great company.

I do this both because I am concerned about eating local food, and also because I get a bit bored with cabbage in the hungry gap, come early spring. I think it is a useful skill to have, beyond the usual brambling that I am sure almost everyone I know has indulged in at one time or another.

Flowers and Fruit

I have tried a number of plants, some of which I have really liked, and some of which I have not. It is a pleasant way to pass a few hours, and mostly you will be eating weeds, so many gardeners will appreciate your efforts.

I also have a fishing rod, and do eat food that people who I know have hunted themselves. I think that this is a sustainable way to eat fish and meat – catch only what you can eat, eat game.  However, this is not the focus of this post. I may get back to this topic at a later date.

When you forage for your own food, you do run risks. There are many plants and fungi about that can make you mildly to quite ill, and there are some that will make you quite dead! Some really tasty species are very easy to confuse with some really deadly ones. Common sense and caution are your friends if you decide to go and sample nature’s larder.

There are also a number of laws and bylaws governing foraging, so try to make sure you know what they are in your area, in order to avoid having your collar felt!

I go by the following basic rules, which should help to keep you safe, and largely legal. You may wish to add your own in the comments.

  1. The laws on foraging tend to be fairly complicated, there are differences between countries, and there may also be local bylaws in effect. Please make sure that you know and follow the laws governing foraging where you are. You can generally find out what may apply through your local council, although be aware that this can be time-consuming, and you may get passed onto to different departments and agencies.
  2. There may well be more complicated laws, and outright bans in some places, on gathering mushrooms for commercial purposes.  I would not take the risk of attempting to gather mushrooms for sale. Unless you are an expert, I really don’t recommend that you do either.
  3. It is polite, and probably a very good idea, to get permission from the landowner before you gather food from his land.
  4. Don’t remove all of the plants in one area. If greedy people have taken them all before they can reproduce, there will be none left for next year. Besides the conservation aspect, older mushrooms and fruits are likely to be unappetising, either through ‘going over’ or by becoming infested with maggots.
  5. Try not to gather food too near to the roads – the things you find there may look really juicy, but they are likely to be contaminated with all sorts of chemicals that result from burning petrol. I also try not to use plants from areas where there is heavy dog use, or at least I make sure that I have washed eveything thoroughly.
  6. Take a good field guide with you. I usually take a few with me, because plants and  mushrooms are not uniform, and you need to have a good idea. A good field guide will have photos, classification charts, and will have information on habitat. I also find taking a tree field guide with me to be very useful, to help me double-check the species that I have. Similar looking mushrooms sometimes grow under different trees, or in different habitats.
  7. Careful identification of the plant or mushroom is required. Only by learning its identity can you be sure if it is poisonous or not. The best way to do this is to proceed with caution. Note the habitat, its appearance (if you can, both young and old specimens), the colour of its spores. Again, good field guides will have this information.
  8. People have different tastes, and different reactions. Once you have identified an edible species, only try a small amount at first, to gauge if you have any adverse reactions.
  9. MOST IMPORTANTLY if you are in any doubt of the identity of your plant, or if it is easily confused with a similar, but poisonous species please err on the side of caution and do not eat it. You must be aware of what happened to that cat who was a little too curious?

Many mushroom  foragers that I know tend to stick to a few patches that they know well, and to two or three species that they are sure of. You could also enlist the help of an expert, and there are many courses that you can go on to improve your knowledge. Whichever way you choose, I am definitely not to blame if you do have ill effects.

Even if I cooked it for you. You shouldn’t suffer, though,  because I am careful to follow these simple rules.

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