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Wild Chicory



Wild chicory is unbearably bitter. But it's exactly what your liver needs in springtime, to cleanse and renew itself after the long winter struggle with reduced sunlight, and the body's tendency to go into hibernation mode (i.e.: storing fat, reducing circulation, and general stagnation). It is one of the many wild bitter herbs that pop up in early spring.

Chicory is a useful medicinal plants with several properties and uses. The leaves are mostly known for their cleansing and liver-protecting properties (either when eaten raw or cooked; or when dried and used in teas or other medicinal preparations). Leaves also can be used to redue skin inflammation and swelling.

The roots are often dried and roasted to prepare a coffee substitute, or are even added to coffee to extend its nutty flavour. It's interesting to note also, that chicory root also balances the stimulating properties of coffee.



Aside from the medicinal properties, chicory leaves provide a marvellous culinary experience for those who appreciate wildcrafted foods and the often neglected benefit of bitter flavour. Fresh leaves may be added to salads (use only the tender young leaves). Larger leaves may be steamed or sauteed and prepared similarly to kale, as a warm salad drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt. You may feel the need to balance the bitterness with a little sweet touch of Silan (date molasses), honey or coconut palm sugar, or a handful of chopped almonds and raisins.

The Arabic cuisine in the Galilee includes a fascinating pastry, in which simple flatbread layered with with a mixture of steamed chicory leaves (known as "Elt") are seasoned with red chili pepper, salt and fried onion. The dough is than rolled and baked, and served along with other mezze and dips, or as a side dish with more hearty dishes such as mujadarah or lamb stew.

Note: Cultivated types or relatives of chicory include radiccio (also extremely bitter) and endive, which is grown in the dark to keep the leaves pale and tender (and also a little less bitter).

Budding Needles

Budding Cedar of Lebanon by Ayala Moriel
Budding Cedar of Lebanon, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Last week I had the short-lived yet delightful opportunity to forage a minute amount of spring needle tips with my mom to use in teas.

Conifers were not made equal, and some were better suited for this purpose. Notably, Douglas fir and some types of spruce produces the most delightful young needles: tender like sprouting wheatgrass; and soft like a silky tassels. But of course what's most important is their aromatic and flavour profile: look for spring tips that have a delightful refreshing yet sweet aroma, reminiscent of lemon zest and tangerine peel and a breath of forest after rain.

How can you tell which ones to pick? If you don't know the specific species, use your senses to assess the tea potential of these spring forest buds. Rub them between your fingers and inhale. If the scent appeals to you, that's a good start. But what's most important is the taste. Don't hesitate to nibble on some (they should be soft and tender when you pick them, so don't worry about puncturing your cheeks...). If they taste acrid, dry and bitter - forget about them. If they are slightly tart, delicately aromatic and leave only very little dryness in your mouth this would also be your experience when you brew them into a tea.

The tips pictured above are of Cedar of Lebanon (taken at the Van Dusen Botanical Garden). These look pretty and feel soft; but don't have any of the qualities you'd want in a forest-foraged-tea. Below are Douglas fir spring needle tips. They are very short and require a lot of work to harvest; but their aroma is superb! And to boot, they are rich in vitamin C, which would be a wonderful supplement for your immune system in the spring or any time of the year.

Douglas Fir Needle Tips

Once picked, spread the needle tips or "tassels" on a tray to thoroughly dry in the shade: away from light, heat and, of course, humidity. Once they are thoroughly dry, store in an airtight container and steep in boiling water to make a delicious, fragrant tea (1 tsp per 250ml) that can be served warm or chilled.

Spring Forest Risotto

Spring Forest Risotto by Ayala Moriel
Spring Forest Risotto, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.

Yesterday's foraging expedition got me in love with the rainforest all over again. And so I've decided to cook a special risotto for dinner tonight, that uses fresh seasonal vegetables and also makes use of unusual ingredients that spark my imagination.

I got a bunch of fresh, crisp organic asparagus at the farmer's market, and I've been thinking long and hard about what stock would work for an asparagus risotto?

A little voice in my head kept whispering something about green tea. But I couldn't pick the right one (and using the finest green tea I've got in a risotto seemed like a sacrilege...). But I knew that there was something better out there on my tea shelf... And finally it came to me: Hall's Fir Tip Tea!

I set to action, using young organic leeks instead of onions of shallots, sauteeing them in ghee (it's better than butter for cooking, in my opinion, as it doesn't scorch so easily). Then came the carnaroli rice, and quickly I realized that I was out of white wine... And that the white wine would have probably killed the "tea" flavour anyway with it's cheesy, yeasty afternotes. So of course, I used the last few drops of Hendricks' gin I had on hand instead, to much delight, and than proceeded with pouring the infused fir tip tea, a little bit at a time until it absorbs completely into the rice.

To make the fresh, delicate tastes really shine I've added no spices at all except for Maldon sea salt flakes. And the asparagus was steamed on the side and then incorporated into the risotto just before serving, and than topped with parmesan cheese.

The result is a very light, refreshing risotto, full of flavour of the forest and great contrast of textures: crunchy tender asparagus vs the creamy, starchy rice. The forest notes are not overpowering but are definitely there in the best way.

This risotto would go well with a white sparkling wine, the infused elderflowers with San Pellegrino - or, as we had it: with the remaining pot of fir tip tea sipped happily until the very last grain of rice was gone...

Spring Forest Risotto

Ingredients:

2 tea bags of Juniper Ridge's Douglas Fir Tip Tea

1 L Boiling water

1.5 cups Carnaroli rice, washed well and drained

2 young leeks (or 1 large), greens included

2 Tbs butter or ghee (if you're vegan, you may use a light vegetable oil as well, such as grapeseed oil)

2 Tbs gin

Small bunch of asparagus (about 6 stalks), steamed and cut into large chunks

Parmesan cheese

- Steep the tea bags in boiling water

- Cut the leek (greens and all!) into thin slices

- Steam the asparagus until it snaps easily (do not overcook!). Cut into short pieces.

- Sutee in ghee until tender and transparent. Add a pinch of salt.

- Add the washed and drained rice and stir well for about 1 minute

- Add the gin and cook until the alcohol evaporated completely. Add a pinch of salt.

- Begin adding the tea, only a little bit at a time - just enough to cover the rice. Cook till it absorbs, and only then add more of the tea. Add a pinch of salt between each addition of

- Once all the liquids absorbed into the rice, and the rice is tender (not mushy - it should have a consistency similar to an "al dente" pasta), it's ready. Remove from heat.

- Adjust seasoning (salt only if required). You may want to ad a tiny bit of shaved juniper berries as well. Pepper is not appropriate for this dish as it's aroma will overpower the tea infusion.

- To serve - mix the rice with the asparagus pieces, and with Parmesan cheese to taste. Add a few larger pieces on the top for garnish. Add more shaved Parmesan cheese on the top.

- This recipe will go great with wild asparagus as well, of course. You may also use fiddleheads while they'r in season in place of the asparagus.

Fragrant Gift from the Forest

Yesterday we foraged for fragrant elderflowers in Stanley Park. It was a typical spring day: incidivisive weather, ranging from trickling rain, pounding hail and at long came the beautiful sunny afternoon I was waiting for, so I can go pick elderflowers.

Elderflowers are my new fling: we've only just met at the farmer's market on Saturday, and I'm already smitten with its delicate, berry-like aroma. And it took me only one time of enjoying the fresh cordial (or shall I call it iced flower infusion), to be convinced that these are worth traveling the miles for and risking a dirty shirt and a slip in the rainforest swamp for it.

It was beautiful, and I remembered seeing many of the shrubs along the trails I frequent on my weekend strolls; so I went wearing my best clothes without realizing how adventurous humans get when searching for food. White cashmere sweater is not a proper attire for such an adventure; and neither is a skirt; unless you want your bare skin to get kissed by cold wet moss. I was very glad that at least I had the forsight to put on good hiking boots though, which prevented me from slipping into the many mini-swamps that crawl alongside most of Stanley Park's trails.

A few tips about picking elderflowers: shake them well from the many little bugs that inhabit them before you take them home. You might still need to shake them again before using them for your infusions; but it will be a lot less messy.

Elderflowers are supposedly more fragrant before noon. If your weather allows, go for it and head out in the morning. I had to wait till late afternoon and they were still very fragrant and beautiful. Also, I find that the smell better after they are picked than straight on the branches, where at times their honeyed berry scent is overpowered by animalic nuances reminiscent of wet dog coat and skunk spray. Which might be why I never was tempted to forage them till this year. Thank the farmer's market for exposing me to the picked flowers!

As for the uses - you can make cordials and liquors with them, and once you've got your hands on the flowers - the process is simple. You can make it in two concentrations - a concentrated syrup-like cordial, or an infusion that can be drank fresh as it is. Below are the recipes for both:

Making Eldeflowers Cordial

Fresh Elderflower Infusion:

1.5L boiling water

1/2 cup evaporated cane sugar

30 elderflower clusters

2 organic lemons, cut into 8 wedges

Boil the water, and pour into a pitcher over the flowers, sugar and lemon.

Infuse overnight (or for 12 hours), covered in a cloth.

Refrigerate and use within a week (there is no need to strain the flowers and fruit, they will continue to infuse the water with their aroma).

To serve: pour half a glass of the flower infusion through a strainer, and half a glass of San Pellegrino or other unsweetened soda. Add ice cubes if desired. Enjoy!


Elderflower Cordial:

Most recipes call for citric acid (which is a preservative, but also kills the delicate floral aroma, in my humble opinion). My recipe won't last as long, but is true to the flowers.

1.5L boiling water

1kg sugar cane

40-60 elderflower tops

2 organic lemons, cut into 8 wedges

Dissolve the sugar with the boiling water.

Add the lemon wedges and the flowers. Cover with a cloth and infuse overnight (or for 12 hours). Strain through a fine sieve or mesh cloth, and store in sterilized containers, in the fridge.

This cordial may be used to taste (it's very concentrated) in soda water, in addition to iced teas, lemonades, poured over ice cream, and used in cocktails.

You may also use elderflower to make your own elderflower liquor - I haven't yet, but will this weekend, and if it goes well I will share with you my recipe.

Foraging

Can you guess what (wild) plant this is? Hint: It's edible.
If you guess correctly I will be very impressed, as it looks extremely different from what we would expect it to be if we were to hear the actual name... I'm very eager to share the plant, so I will publish the answer later tonight. But just for the fun of it - who's game for guessing? If you guess correctly, I'll send you a sample of Smiling Country.

Growing up in the largely-wild country side of the Western Galilee (in northern Israel), we always would collect herbs and edible plants from the wild. Hyssop and sage are easy to find; while white mint and wild mountain thyme were a little more rare and "exotic", and combined with their valued medicinal properties and aromatic profile - my mom always made it very clear that we should always bring some home and remember where the plants were on our hikes and random roaming around on the thorny hill behind our home.

In the wintertime and early spring, there are also many edible greens full of nutrition that my mom learned how to recognize, harvest and prepare from the Arab and Druze women of the neighbouring villages: wild chicory (oh-so bitter, which she baked into a rolled pie, seasoned with crushed chiles), stinging nettles, mallow leaves (fresh in salad), purslane (in salad or incorporated into omlets and frittatas), and many other mysterious weeds I can't find the actual name for at the moment and deserve a whole post all on their own on account of their intrigue and obscurity.

For years now, I've been living in the city, and my foraging has been limited to the few obvious plants I know - blackberries, huckleberries, salmon berries and the like. Inspired by the book Earth to Table, I'm now determined to expand my foraging skills and learn a little more about edible wild plants of the Pacific Northwest. Anyone up for hunting morels, fiddleheads and ramps?
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