Fat of the Land
The winter of 2018 seemed an especially tenacious one, with onslaughts of wet, heavy snow that brought down more trees than Hurricane Sandy and intense flurries deep into the month of April. And then, as if on cue, the mourning doves initiated their courting rituals, the peepers’ serenade rang out and the mysterious maroon hoods of the skunk cabbage poked up through the frozen earth. Where once the earth seemed to slumber in silence, the miracle of life began anew.
In spring, the first tender greens offer themselves to palates primed for anything fresh and bitter, activating the gallbladder and liver to detoxify the system. As plants grow and become hardier, many of them bloom, and later, produce sweet fruits or nuts rich with fat. This cycle of nature offers us a steady diet of nourishing and delicious foods at exactly the times we need them most. The Catskills hold an abundance of wild edibles but, for those interested in foraging, it’s important to tread lightly and sensibly. Harvest mindfully, without taking plants that are endangered or in scarce supply and never deplete a food source that is essential to animals and pollinators. Above all, remember the wise adage, When in doubt, throw it out! And eat only what you can positively identify. This means really getting to know the plants, as well as the ecosystems in which they grow. Buy a field guide. Walk with a mentor. Consult online sources.
RAMPS: Among my favorites of the early edibles are ramps, nettles and Japanese knotweed. Popularized by chefs and at farmers markets, these wild leeks now engender a frenzy when they emerge in early spring. Such unbridled enthusiasm has led to over-harvesting of this slow-to-germinate plant; environmentalists report that ramp populations are greatly compromised. As a solution, it is now recommended that the bulbs be left behind and only the greens harvested (just one leaf per plant, please). Or, better yet, opt for ramps’ invasive cousin, field garlic, which is an extremely hardy European interloper that spreads vigorously. Its leaves are tender hollow tubes similar to chives and the small bulbs have a funky garlic flavor. Field garlic bread, anyone?
NETTLES: Nettles push up from the barely warm ground and are commonly found in meadows, parks and fields. They are best harvested while wearing gloves, as even the most desirable tender, young growth is covered with tiny stinging hairs. To deactivate the stingers, blanch the greens briefly. Cooked, they taste like an earthier, richer spinach. Try them wilted and buttered as a simple side dish, or use them to make pasta, gnocchi, pesto or risotto. My first batch of the year is always reserved for soup, made by blending the nettles with their blanching water, a little cooked potato and onion, and a glug of heavy cream. The result is a velvety, verdant puree that is the essence of spring. Keep an eye out throughout the fall, as young crops of freshly seeded nettles will grow past the first frost.
JAPANESE KNOTWEED: A vigorous plant that was coveted in Victorian times for its summertime sprays of delicate white flowers, Japanese knotweed has become one of the most problematic invasive plants in this country. It spreads quickly and often takes over roadsides and riverbanks. Despite its bamboo-like appearance, it’s actually related to buckwheat, as is rhubarb, with which it shares a mouth-puckering astringency. The tender shoots make the best eating, so harvest them at about 6 to 8 inches, and enjoy them in both sweet and savory preparations. They can be gently steamed and served with a rich hollandaise to counter their lemony tartness, or pureed with a little cream into a piquant sauce for pasta. Roast them with strawberries and orange zest, then bake into a pie or serve as a compote with vanilla ice cream.
ELDERFLOWERS: As summer approaches, look for elderflowers in bloom—these tall shrubs are often found in swampy areas or along riverbanks. When the broad creamy flower heads are at their peak (they will eventually give way to purple berries that can be cooked into an immune-boosting syrup), strip the individual blossoms from the stems and combine them in a large jar with sugar, water, fresh lemon juice and zest. Let this sit out for a few days until it starts to ferment and acquire a light effervescence. Strain all the solids out and bottle the cordial before storing it in the fridge, where additional fermentation is radically slowed.
MUSHROOMS: Beginning with the elusive morel in May and continuing through the fall with myriad varieties, including black trumpet, chicken-of-the-woods, lion’s mane, giant puffball, shaggy mane and hen-of-the-woods, mushroom-hunting in the Catskills can be extremely rewarding. Many of these fantastic fungi have no toxic look-alikes, nevertheless proper identification is paramount. Once that has been established, however, nothing stands between you and umami-packed heaven. All of these are delectable either pan-fried or roasted with plenty of butter and garlic. Should you find yourself with a surplus, especially of black trumpets, try drying them and grinding with salt to use as a finishing garnish on everything from soup to nuts. Long after the first snowfall, it will impart the sublime flavor of the forest to even the humblest dish.
By Laura Silverman