Excerpted from “A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation”
The Edible Woods
Foraging for delights, plus recipes for tiny wild cherry pies + rosehip infusions
I have always wanted to be the kind of person who ventures into a lush green forest with an empty basket. While some scroll through their Instagram feeds envying other people’s six-pack abs and exotic vacations, I’m wishing I could be one of those foragers harvesting elderflowers for cordial or showing off a massive haul of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. It’s the most practical hobby imaginable: not only are you finding free food, some of which you rarely see in the grocery store (like ramps and fiddleheads, which are very pricey because Whole Foods is paying people to forage them for you), but it’s likely more nutritious because Big Ag hasn’t wrung all the vitamins out of it. Foraging simultaneously appeals to my Parable-of-the-Sower-grade apocalypse anxiety and my fantasy of living in a pretty little cottage in the forest with a well and a vintage hand pump right in my kitchen. At any rate, I want to stop talking about living closer to nature and actually learn something that will allow me to do so.
Local farms and nature reserves often sponsor guided walks, but finding someone to take you on a one-on-one hike is an expensive proposition. Foragers can be very territorial, which doesn’t seem so stingy when you consider that some people over-harvest with no concern for sustainability. And there’s only so much you can learn from a book.
My roommate Rachel and I go on a guided mushroom walk at Ballard Park in Newport, Rhode Island, a beautiful wooded nature reserve that was a working quarry in the 19th century. Our guides, Emily Schmidt and Ryan Bouchard, explain the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi and say they don’t recommend gilled mushrooms for beginners, as there are about a dozen deadly gilled species. (“There was a guy who survived eating a death cap,” Ryan says, “and he said it was really, really good.”) The edibility of most of the mushrooms you’ll see is questionable, so you’ve really got to learn one species at a time.
Nature astonishes us: there is a mycelium growing under the earth in Oregon that is bigger than a whale (it’s the largest known organism on the planet, and likely the oldest), and a tree can be dying for longer than the longest human lifespan. But my biggest takeaway from this walk is that if you want to start foraging by learning your mushrooms, you have to be very, very patient. I decide to start with foods there’s no chance of mis-identifying and learn my way from there.
In his Complete Herbal (first published in England in 1653) the English botanist Nicholas Culpeper informs us that dandelions, “vulgarly called Piss-a-beds,” can help clear liver, gall, and spleen obstructions. “[T]he distilled water is effectual to drink in pestilential fevers, and to wash the sores.” Praise heaven I suffer from none of these ailments, but I still want to forage them for some sort of beverage. Dutch “plant activist” and vegan cookbook author Lisette Kreischer posts a photo of her “dandelion elixir,” luminous yellow in a perfect vintage bottle, and I want that color even more than I’m curious about the taste.
It’s early June, so the dandelions aren’t growing as riotously as they do in the spring. I’m staying with my parents for the month, and I haver about foraging in suburbia because pesticide usage is so common — they say you’re safer foraging in urban areas, ironically — but then I figure if someone’s using pesticides on their lawn then there wouldn’t be dandelions growing. So, one early evening I walk the fifteen minutes to the public library, like I used to when I lived at home in my early thirties. I actually have to search for dandelion flowers, but the next morning they are abundant. How have I not noticed how quickly plants can grow? And in all that time walking to and from the library almost every day, I never noticed the tiny wild raspberries growing under blades of grass on the lawn of our local suffragist’s ancestral home.
Lisette’s Instagram caption offers a method but no measurements or proportions. After simmering on the stove and sitting for twenty-four hours my dandelion collection yields 2 ¾ cups of decoction, to which I add ¾ cup apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup agave (Lisette recommends rice syrup, but I use what I have on hand). My “elixir” comes out worryingly murky (probably because I didn’t pull off the green bits at the base of each flower, the involucres — a word I had to Google for), but it tastes as I imagine it should: like grass, admittedly. But it also tastes like the hour after our return to the family vacation house in the Poconos, chasing my sister through the chest-high grass in the backyard while my grandparents pushed the lawnmowers out to the treeline and back. It tastes like a nine-mile ramble in Tipperary with my best friend, sitting by a stream in a bluebell wood in the dappled sunlight, and eating dandelion heads we plucked from the side of the road.
It’s too much vinegar and not enough sweetener but I drink it anyway, three fingers of murky golden liquid in a drinking glass filled to the top with seltzer and ice. I give my mom a taste and she pulls the same face she makes after a bite of kimchi or a sip of kombucha. One week and I’ve finished the jar.
Two wild cherry trees stand at the bottom of my parents’ yard, here long before the house was built in the early ’90s. On the far side of the five-foot wooden fence lies an unruly tangle of trees and undergrowth, beyond that a field that hasn’t been tilled in years. There’s a fluorescent green hammock I brought back from a trip to Colombia several years ago, strung between an oak and one of the cherry trees.
At least three groundhogs have tunneled under the neighbors’ shed. Their names are Charlie, the big one, and his offspring Frank and Charlie Junior, as christened by my stepdad. I watch from the kitchen window as they waddle across the lawn under the cherry trees. It’s mid-June, and the fruit has begun to drop.
My mom and stepdad have lived in this house since I was twelve, but this is only the second time I’ve harvested the cherries intending to bake anything with them. Most people would say they’re too sour for eating raw. The first time, a few years ago, my niece and I picked them together and baked them into miniature pies using a muffin tin. This time I’ll stew the cherries beforehand and do little lattices on top.
One warm Sunday evening I move through the grass in my bare feet picking cherries, smaller and a brighter shade of red than the kind you get at the grocery store, and then for the better part of an hour I stand at the kitchen sink halving the cherries and discarding the pits. I don’t remember the de-pitting taking so long last time, and I have to toss several because there are bugs inside. But the dozen mini-pies we get out of this will be worth the trouble.
Does it count as foraging if it grows in your own backyard? Perhaps not. But free food is free food!
In July we celebrate our friend Casandra’s birthday at the campground at Horseneck Beach on the South Shore of Massachusetts. The dunes above the rocky shoreline are covered in thorny swaths of pink and white beach roses, most of which are past their prime. But “[i]f you keep an eye on any single [wild] rose after it blooms, you will notice that once it drops its petals, the base of the former flower begins to swell into a green orb,” Leda Meredith writes in Northeast Foraging. “That is a rose hip in the making.”
At first, I thought they were beach plums, which shows you how little I know. The hips are mostly pale orange, and at least I can tell they’re not ready for picking. But we’ll be camping here again in mid-August, and I resolve to forage. In the meantime, I learn that because three rosehips contain as much vitamin C as one large orange, folks living in rural England during World War II would harvest them for medicinal rosehip syrup used in hospitals (at home and abroad) after lemons and oranges became scarce. I learn from another northeast foraging guide that this species, Rosa rugosa, was brought here from Asia by colonial seafarers. Most sources say rosehips are best harvested after the first frost, when the orbs turn dark red and grow much sweeter, but the last time I camped in New England in the autumn I couldn’t get warm no matter how many layers of sweaters and blankets. And anyhow, if the birds think they’re ready to eat, then so do I.
So we come back to Horseneck, and at sunset Rachel and I harvest a basketful of red and dark-orange rosehips. The next morning I’m still picking the tiny prickles out of the flesh between my thumb and forefinger. More Googling: jam or jelly? vinegar? cordial? Dan suggests infused vodka. Home again, I buy a bottle of Everclear from the liquor store down the street, trim and wash the rosehips, run a few handfuls at a time through the food processor (seeds, hairy pith, and all), pour everything into a half-gallon Ball jar, and give it a good shake before leaving it on a high shelf to infuse. Turns out we’ve gathered six pounds of fruit, enough to make rosehip liqueur and cordial for the teetotalers and vinegar for salad dressing. When I go to Newport with Dan in mid-September, I’m excited to see the cliff walk dotted with hedges of Rosa rugosa, and though we haven’t had a cold night yet, most of the rosehips are between slightly-overripe and rotting. I’m glad Rachel and I harvested them when we did.
I was midway through drafting this chapter when my friend Marika came to visit. After writing together at the Providence Athenaeum, we were walking down Benefit Street when Marika suddenly plucked a small green apple from a tree and ate the whole thing in a few bites. How had I never noticed that the trees lining this lovely historic street bore edible fruit? No one else was eating any of it, apparently, and it seemed unlikely any of the owners would mind if we took some. They were tart and sweet, like little Granny Smiths.
Now there were apple trees everywhere we looked. Marika told me that in the middle ages fruits like this were called “lady apples” because women would eat them to sweeten their breath. She climbed trees and tossed them down to me, and we walked through the city together, chatting away as we snacked on foraged apples.
Miniature Wild Cherry Pie
I love baking muffin-sized pies: they’re so neat and cute and portion sized.
Yields at least one dozen. Best enjoyed warm.
Forks optional but napkins recommended!
Pastry crust [essentially Julia Child’s classic recipe, veganized]:
- 2 ½ cups plus 2 tbsp. organic unbleached flour
- ¾ of a stick (6 tbsp.) of chilled vegan butter (I used Earth Balance)
- ¾ cup plus 3 tbsp. vegan shortening (I used Spectrum)
- 1 ½ tsp. salt
- ⅓ cup cold water
- 3 ½ lb. wild cherries
- ¼ to ⅓ cup maple syrup
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- ¼ cup cornstarch whisked in 2 tbsp. water
You’ll also need:
- A muffin tin (ideally two in case you have enough ingredients for a dozen plus two to four extra pies)
- A rolling pin
- Pie weights (alternatively, you can use unbleached/undyed paper baking cups weighted with dried beans or legumes)
Optional: 1 tbsp. organic cane sugar plus 2 tbsp. melted vegan butter for brushing and sprinkling on the lattice crust
- Prepare the dough ahead of time: mixing salt into flour, add butter and shortening in chunks and work together in a stand mixer or by hand, adding cold water until fully combined. Refrigerate dough for two hours.
- Take care to remove the pit from every cherry. (I texted my friend Dan when I found one in my pie — my own fault — and he replied, “At least it wasn’t a Band-Aid!”) In a saucepan, stew cherries on medium heat, stirring in maple syrup, vanilla, and the cornstarch mixture once the cherries have begun to release their juice. Stew for twenty to thirty minutes, stirring regularly, until the liquid has mostly evaporated. The filling should be somewhat sticky but not too thick.
- Preheat the oven to 400º F. Roll out the dough to ¼” and use a pint glass or other wide-mouthed cup to form even circles to press into muffin tin for pie bases. (You don’t have to grease the tin.) You’ll need the pie weights to prevent the dough from rising as you pre-bake for twelve minutes until lightly golden. This makes a nice sturdy crust that will hold the filling.
- After pre-baking, lower oven temperature to 375º F. Take the muffin tin out of the oven and fill with stewed cherry mixture, pressing down gently into cup with spoon. The cups should be no more than two-thirds full. Cut dough into ribbons roughly 3/8” wide and create a lattice top with four ribbons each for “warp” and “weft,” pressing ends against the rim of the pastry base to seal the pies. You don’t want to see any filling through the lattice or else the cherry juice will bubble over (even if you haven’t overfilled the cups). See bit.ly/cometparty-lattice for a quick lattice-making demo.
- Brush lattice tops with vegan butter and sprinkle with cane sugar, if using, and bake at 375º F for 30 minutes until lattice is golden.
Rosehip recipes generally instruct you to halve the fruits and scoop out the seeds, but this is unnecessarily tedious. For these infusions I roughly chopped the whole fruits in a food processor and skimmed off the seeds after shaking the jar (or while warming on the stove, in the case of the cordial). The seeds will rise to the top, and you may skim off a cup or more.
When your infusion is ready, pour the contents of the jar through a mesh strainer into a large bowl, pressing the pulp with a potato masher to extract more liquid. Strain a second time through cheesecloth into a clean sanitized jar. (These infusions make lovely gifts; I purchased recycled-glass bottles from SpecialtyBottle.com, or you can just reuse bottles from the grocery store.)
- 1 lb. rosehips, trimmed, rinsed, and chopped
- One 17-ounce bottle of white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
Pour ingredients into a half-gallon Ball jar (a quart jar is a bit too small), shake well, skim seeds, re-seal, and store for up to one month, shaking periodically.
Once you’ve clarified your infusion, you can either keep it in the fridge (if you’ll be using it within three months) or pasteurize for long-term storage at room temperature. To pasteurize: clean, sanitize, and warm the storage jar in the oven at 150º F. Meanwhile, simmer vinegar on the stove for ten minutes, being careful not to boil. Let cool and pour into sanitized storage jar. Yields 2 ⅓ cups.
- 1 ½ lb. rosehips, trimmed, rinsed, and chopped
- One-liter bottle of Everclear or vodka
- 1 cup simple syrup (see below)
Infuse fruit in liquor for up to one month. After clarifying, add simple syrup and shake well to combine. (Needless to say, this stuff is powerful. You definitely won’t want to drink it straight! Mixes well with prosecco or seltzer.) Yields 4 ¾ cups.
- 2 ½ lb. rosehips, trimmed, rinsed, and chopped
- 1 ½ gallons filtered water
- ¾ to 1 cup cardamom simple syrup (see below)
Simmer fruit in half gallon of filtered water for at least an hour, but the longer the better, skimming off the seeds at the start and adding a second half gallon of water when the mixture has boiled down. I let mine sit in the pot for a few days in the refrigerator for good measure. Skim liquid, return solids to stove, add final half gallon, and simmer for another half hour. Skim and clarify into two sterilized half-gallon Ball jars, adding half the infused simple syrup into each and shaking thoroughly to mix.
Store in the refrigerator. Drink straight or cut with seltzer. Yields 12 cups.
How to Make Simple Syrup
Simple syrup is made by dissolving one part (organic, Fair-Trade) cane sugar into one part boiling water and allowing to cool. You can do this on the stove, but a more efficient method (which I learned while working at a vegan cafe in Cambridge, MA) is to pour the boiling water into the sugar in a Ball jar, seal the jar and wrap in a kitchen towel, and shake gently until the sugar is dissolved. This way you can store the simple syrup in the jar without having to wash a pan.
For cardamom simple syrup, add ¼ cup whole cardamom pods to the jar, shake well, and let infuse for up to three days. Use the leftover syrup in your morning coffee or in homemade lemon- or gingerade.