The Secret To Wild Foods (Plus A Recipe For Sumac Pink Peppercorn Salt)
Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for a while, it can be easy to forget where you started. Every now and then, someone comes to me excited about getting in to working with wild plants, but unsure where to begin. My advice: get to know them first.
I think about my knowledge of wild plants and fungi as a sort of community; there are those that are loud and energetic that greet you as you walk through the door, the quieter conversations tucked into the corners, and those shy wallflowers that I’m still just barely getting to know after many years spent around them. Each plant that I’ve worked with deserves a relationship and a conversation. And funnily enough, that’s often how my knowledge of them seems to progress!
It starts with a crush. I start noticing a particular plant more and more, start seeing articles about it or recipes pop up, start thinking about it a lot. I get distracted on hikes or drives and feel called to spend more time around it. I begin with research: where does this plant grow? What parts are edible? Are there any safety considerations or specific ways it should be processed? Any poisonous look-alikes to be aware of? How do indigenous people use it? What about herbalists?
Then, I harvest a bunch and get to know it. Time to develop a more personal relationship. I might brew up an infusion with just that plant and pay attention to the flavors, the smells, the overall feeling, the way it sits in my body. It’s always good to start low and slow when introducing a new plant to your body; just like any other food, there is the possibility of allergy or intolerance. I might then start thinking about flavors: what if I paired this with something acidic? Something sweet? Something salty? (Some of my most successful experiments often result from unexpected combinations, such as candied chanterelle mushrooms or pickled walnuts.) I often make a variety of infusions: vinegar, oil, syrup, and tea, and taste test each individually before adding them to dishes.
Once I understand the depth of flavor of the plant, I start to compare it to more common food items. This gives me a basis to start brainstorming recipes and researching options. For example, curly dock seed flour is similar to buckwheat, so I might look up buckwheat recipes to adapt. It’s at this point that the infatuation really begins as I start thinking about all of the wide possibilities for that particular plant. I do a lot of open-ended experimenting in the kitchen, knowing that some tests will be great and others awful. That’s how we learn. As I become more and more acquainted with each plant, they become comfortable friends, something I can reach for when I’m looking for a particular flavor profile or texture.
And so begins a beautiful intimacy with the wild plants around my home. I understand rose hips as deeply as I understand tomatoes; I know fir tips like I know basil. It’s through curiosity-driven explorations that I’ve come to develop the knowledge I hold. And just like human friends, I know that I will always have something to learn from each plant, will always be discovering more complexities and curiosities as I continue to explore and converse.
So if you are new to foraging or simply want a way to engage a little bit more deeply, I encourage you to proceed with wonder and curiosity leading the way. Let yourself become infatuated with the plants that you feel drawn to. Explore the depth and beauty they offer. Get to know each one. Then, and only then, will blending and seasoning with them come as naturally as it does with salt and pepper.
Speaking of, here’s one of the results of my own kitchen experiments: sumac and pink peppercorn salt. Staghorn sumac is one of my most recent “plant crushes” as its bright red drupes (clusters) really stand out against the stark white world this time of year. I’ve loved watching it progress through the seasons, with flame-orange leaves and red clusters in the fall, then anter-like branches with glowing velvet in the winter. It has a refreshingly tart flavor, a bit like lemon juice (in fact, sumac tea can make a great lemonade substitute!) I love that there’s such a local source for that bright tart flavor, and it pairs especially wonderfully with the floral notes of pink peppercorns. Add in some red sea salt and you’ve got a versatile blend that’s good on just about anything.
Sumac and Pink Peppercorn Salt:
3/4 c whole pink peppercorns
1 c sumac*
1 1/4 c. red salt
1/2 c. fine sea salt
In a spice grinder, briefly grind the pink peppercorns so the mixture is still pretty coarse. Spoon the peppercorns into a bowl.
Add the other ingredients and mix well. Leave out to try for a couple of hours, then bottle.
*Fresh sumac needs to be processed into a spice to use in recipes like this. To do so, first dehydrate the clusters until they are no longer sticky to touch. Then, break them up off the stem and toss them in a blender. This will help to separate the fruit from the sticks and seeds. Blend in short bursts, checking often, until you can see some of the “seeds” looking slightly bald. Then, press everything through a not-too-fine mesh strainer. It takes some time and effort, but the result will be a sour red powder that can be used in recipes like this one! You can also purchase sumac at specialty grocers or international stores.
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