Gifts from Our Forests

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

Have you ever been hungry while on a hike? Do you like unusual foods but can't afford gourmet store prices? If you only knew the specialty store that is at your fingertips!From deep in the ground to the top of its trees, forests provide hundreds of tasty morsels, including morel mushrooms in the spring, berries of all sorts in the summer and various nuts each fall. Year-round you can find something to delight your palate.

We're not suggesting that you avoid the local grocery store. However, foods provided by forests can add variety and nutrition to anyone's diet.

The only catch is that you'll need to be able to identify what you are gathering. We've always been cautious about eating wild foods because some are poisonous look-alikes of edible species. Some plants also have both edible and poisonous parts.

Our rule of thumb has always been, "if you don't know, don't eat it!" To learn about plant and tree identification, visit your local library, bookstore or Missouri Department of Conservation office.

You'll also want to find out when to gather what. Most wild plant guides describe the best season for harvesting the edible portions of different species.

Let's go foraging in the summer forest and discover what gifts abound.

As you walk along the forest edge or in the open woods, look for some wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), dewberries (Rubus spp.), blackberries (Rubus spp.), raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), gooseberries (Ribes missouriense), mulberries (Morus rubra and M. alba) and serviceberries (Amelanchier arborea). You won't be disappointed. These can be eaten fresh off the vine or tree. Take plenty home and try your favorite fruit leather, pie, jelly or jam recipes for a lasting treat throughout the year.

Wash and freeze your summer fare and prepare the treat whenever the urge strikes. Berries can last six months or more depending on how fresh the fruit and how quickly it's packaged.

Jan Phillips provides an easy blackberry pie recipe in her book: Wild Edibles of Missouri.

Blackberry Pie

Wash the berries and fill your pie crust almost to the top. Cover the berries with sugar, then sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the top, along with a small amount of salt. Drop several butter pats on the top and cover with another crust. Bake the pie on a cookie sheet to protect the oven, because the pie often bubbles over. Bake at 350 degrees for almost an hour.

Black cherry (Prunus serotina) makes more great fare at the end of summer through early fall. Black cherry syrup is beyond compare on a fresh stack of pancakes or a dish of ice cream! This is a favorite, for it takes only a handful of berries to make several recipes. These little dark purple-to-black colored berries go a long way. We used the same berries to make jelly and then syrup. Jan Phillips provides a simple recipe:

Black Cherry Jelly

Cover the cherries with water and simmer for 10 minutes or more. Strain off the juice and measure it. For each cup of liquid add 1G cups of sugar and a package of pectin per every four cups. A trick to making jelly is to measure the liquid and add pectin before returning to the stove. Just as the liquid begins to boil, add the sugar and stir almost continuously until the mixture thickens and the last couple of drops that fall off the spoon slither together and drop like thin jelly. Allow the mixture to cool slightly, spoon off the scum created by the pectin, and your jelly is ready to bottle and seal or cover with paraffin.

Black Cherry Syrup

Use the same berries from above. Place fresh water over the cherries and boil for 15 minutes. This second water makes a syrup that is a pleasant surprise for pancakes. Add equal amounts of sugar and a dab of butter to your juice, return to the stove and boil for just long enough to notice a thickening of the liquid.

CAUTION: don't let any black cherry leaves fall into your pot. The wilted leaves develop an acid which has killed animals. Never make tea out of these leaves.

You can make quite a bit of syrup out of a small cache if you don't like making jelly. Keep in mind that the second boiling is a bit weaker. Experiment! A third boiling may also be possible.

Some common woodland flowers known to many people are the wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta, Oxalis violacea, or others in the Oxalis genus). The leaves taste sour: vaguely lemony: when picked raw. Be conservative in consuming these raw, as some people can tolerate the oxalic acid responsible for the "zip" (sour taste) in only small amounts. You may wish to add either the leaves or tiny yellow or purple flowers to salads for flavor and color. The greens are a great addition to a greens pot, or to a meat dish like the one below:

Greens-and-Sorrel Steaks

Mix 3 to 4 cups cooked greens (N sorrel), 1 clove minced garlic, 2 teaspoons parsley and H teaspoon ground coriander and spread in a casserole dish. Brown 1 cup of ground meat and 1 chopped onion in olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the meat mixture over your greens. Next, scramble 6 eggs with O cup milk and salt and pepper. Pour over casserole and bake.

In June, grape vines (various species in the genus Vitis) reach the best point of development for several uses. The leaves are still tender, yet they're large enough for recipes in which you use them as a wrap. You can gather tendrils, the curly appendages that enable the vines to attach to and climb other plants, in May to make a great addition to salads and pickling solutions.

If you enjoy Greek dishes, you may want to try making your own stuffed grape leaves as a cool summer appetizer. Many recipes exist, both in Greek cookbooks and wild food guides. You could make your own mixture of cooked rice, cooked ground beef or lamb, tomato sauce and spices, or use the following recipe, which includes a traditional lemon sauce:

Stuffed Grape Leaves

For 50 to 60 stuffed grape leaves, chop a large onion and 3 garlic cloves and brown them lightly. Meanwhile, mix together 1 lb. lean ground beef, the juice of 1 lemon, H cup rice, 2 tbsp. fresh spearmint leaves, 2 tbsp. fresh parsley, 1 egg and salt and pepper to taste. Add the onion and garlic to this mixture, as well as some water, if you need it.

Soften about 60 full-sized grape leaves in warm water and then drain. (You'll want to collect 10 to 20 additional leaves to substitute for any that may tear during preparation. Sometimes you may need to use two leaves to make your wrap large enough to cover the filling.) With the upper side of the leaf on the outside, place 1 tsp. of the filling in the center. Fold the sides in toward the middle and roll the leaf, beginning at the narrow tip, like a cigar.

Lay the filled leaves in a large pan in even close rows, seam side down. Continue to add layers until all of the leaves are stacked. Place a plate on the top layer to keep the leaves from unraveling. Cover with water and add a bouillon cube for extra flavor, if desired. Cover the pot and cook slowly for about 45 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed.

To make the sauce, beat 3 egg whites until stiff and fold in 3 egg yolks and the juice of 1 lemon. Pour the sauce over the grape leaves, shake, and serve immediately without stirring, covering or reheating.

As you've now discovered, foraging for summer wild edibles can provide not only a great feast but a great pastime as well.

As days shorten and temperatures drop in fall, roots thicken and the fruits of many plants reach their peak of color and maturity, providing new edible food resources.

In late August begin looking for American hazelnuts (Corylus americana). These small tasty nuts, found along sunny forest edges or in open woods, add a flavor all their own to any recipe. You have to know a trick or two to collect these small flavorful nuts before the squirrels or mice beat you to them.

They grow inside a fleshy husk that's easily recognized. You can harvest these right off the bush if your timing is right. Watch for this green husk to start turning brown on the fringe. Inside the husk you'll find the oval shaped nut. In a good year you'll find them in clusters, generally three to five. We have harvested clusters holding eight or nine nuts in an excellent year.

The outer shell, like any nut, hardens as it dries. Just remove the husk and allow the nuts to air dry for about two months. However, you can speed up this process by drying them in your oven on low heat.

Conservation Agent Marsha Jones shared a favorite recipe with us:

Hazelnut Salad

chuck or sirloin steak

1 head romaine lettuce

2 cloves garlic

red onions

2 tbsp soy sauce

jar of pimento

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 cup shelled hazelnuts, ready to eat

Cut chuck or sirloin steak into bite size pieces. Marinate the meat for about an hour in the garlic, oil and soy sauce. Brown the meat in the same sauce. Add in hazelnuts and heat.

Toss lettuce, red onions and pimento together. Add your browned steak and hazelnuts and serve with honey mustard dressing.

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