Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Caramelised Hen of the Woods

 Just a quick one this time, I hadn’t intended on putting this up, but it tasted so good I simply had to share it. Despite the recent rain, the terrestrial fungi still haven’t appeared en masse down here in southern England (I’m beginning to wonder if they ever will?!). Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa), however, has been kind to me over the last few weeks; I must have found five or six huge specimens.

The firm flesh is perfect slow cooked in pies and casseroles, but is equally at home fried in a creamy sauce and served with pasta - a very versatile beast! But perhaps the best way to cook it is the simplest, with only three ingredients, a saucepan and a spoon necessary.

Hen of the Woods is a parasitic fungus that causes white rot. It's found mainly at the bases of old Oak trees, though this specimen was found on an old Sweet Chestnut about half a metre from the ground.


A perfect Hen growing on an old Sweet Chestnut tree








Ingredients:

- Hen of the Woods
- Butter
- Salt



Cooking the Hen of the Woods couldn’t be simpler; this is kind of a non-recipe. Simply slice the Hen through its width in chunks around an inch deep. You want to use the freshest mushroom you can find for this - when they’re really young the flesh smells like beef. Fry the sliced Hen with butter on the lowest heat possible, basting with a spoon every 30 seconds or so. Flip and repeat every 5 mins. If the pan dries out, add more butter and continue to baste, seasoning with salt as you go. Time is the key with this, don't be tempted to try the mushroom too soon, keep basting and turning until the flesh turns a golden orange colour. When it's ready, slice in to chunks and get your friends and family to tuck in - this is perfect finger food and best enjoyed on its own!





I ended up halving the thickness of this slice - it's the caramelised and crunchy outer
skin that's the tastiest, so thinner slices are preferable!






Friday, 3 October 2014

Eat your weeds

 When I first started foraging I was amazed to find out that the annoying 'weed' that had plagued our salad beds for years was in fact the delicious Hairy Bittercress, a welcome addition, not an invading enemy. As my plant knowledge has expanded I have to come to realise that a lot of the weeds that would normally have been pulled up and chucked in the bin are actually quite delicious. Foraging doesn't have to be an activity for country folk with wicker baskets, with a little knowledge you need only step out your back door to find an array of plants with unique flavours that you simply won't find in a supermarket.

The five 'weeds' listed below are commonly found in gardens, easy to identify, and taste delicious; two salad plants, two herbs and one spice.


Salad plants:

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta):



The name Hairy Bittercress does this plant a great injustice, as it is not bitter in the slightest nor very hairy, in fact, it tastes almost identical to the cress that you can buy in trays and grow on your windowsill and that frequents egg mayo sandwiches. 

Hairy Bittercress is not a difficult plant to find; it grows ubiquitously on waste and disturbed ground, and can be found on inner-city scrubland as well as along the edges of the most verdant country paths. Where you'll find Hairy Bittercress in greatest abundance, however, is in the garden; it will usually appear a few weeks after you've turned an area of soil over and has a tendency to take over. I recently sowed more salad seeds in the garden veg patch hoping for an autumn/winter crop, but to no avail, but I do now have a salad patch full of Hairy Bittercress, which is actually not a bad outcome at all!


Identification: 

Leaves form a small rosette about 10cm across. Leaves sparsely hairy, opposite, with one terminal leaflet. Flowers tiny, white, four petalled. Seed pods slender and upright


Similiar species:

Wavy Bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) is another good edible 'weed'. It tastes and looks almost identical to Hairy Bittercess, so knowing the difference between the two is really only to satisfy that inner botanist in you. Here's how to differentiate the two;

- Conversely, the stems of Wavy Bittercress are hairy, unlike those of Hairy Bittercress
- Hairy Bittercress stems tend to be straight, Wavy Bittercress stems tend to be wavy
- Hairy Bittercress has four stamens, Wavy Bittercress has six
- The seed pods of Hairy Bittercress usually protrude above the flowers, whereas Wavy Bittercress seed pods are usually lower than the top most flower


Hairy Bittercress with its slender, upright seed pods


Chickweed (Stellaria media):



Like Hairy Bittercress, you will find Chickweed on almost any waste or disturbed ground, from cracks in the pavement to allotment beds. It tastes somewhere between grass and gem lettuce, but don't let the grass part put you off though, the succulent lettuce part more than makes up for it.

Chickweed is a very useful salad filler, as, unlike Hairy Bittercress, you can pick it by the bucketful in only a matter of minutes by simply grabbing fistfuls and cutting near the base of the stem (see last picture).

Identification:

Straggling, sprawling stems with a single line of hairs down one side of the stem (key ID feature - see pic below). Flowers are five-petalled, though this sometimes looks more like ten as they are deeply divided.

Similar species:

Although Chickweed is an easy plant to identify when you go through the steps and look for the single line of hairs and 5 petalled white flower, there are a number of plants that look superficially similar, some nicer than others...

Toxic lookalikes: The Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) and Yellow Pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum) have a similar leaf structure to Chickweed, though they're slightly darker and have a square stem. It is the flowers that are the biggest give away, being scarlet and yellow, respectively, not white.

Edible lookalikes: Mouse-ear Chickweed species (Cerastium spp.) have hairy leaves that are more rounded at the end. I find the texture of the hairs when eaten raw to be somewhat unpleasant, so this is perhaps best used as a potage plant. Water Chickweed (Myosoton aquaticum) looks like a larger version of Chickweed and is found in marshes, damp fields and river banks. It has similar uses to Chickweed.





Single line of hairs down the stem - a key identification feature of Chickweed

Chickweed is very easy to pick quickly and in large quantities 

Herbs:

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea):




Ground Ivy is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is one of my favourite herbs, it's extremely versatile with endless applications spanning from fish to game to salsa verde. The old English vernacular name is Alehoof, due to the hoof-like appearance of the leaves and its primary use before the introduction of hops; to flavour ale.

Its scent is very distinctive and tends to divide opinions; some find it overpowering and unpleasant, but I think it's pleasantly fragrant with hints of mint, rosemary and thyme. Don't be put off if you are somebody who finds it unpleasant, as it's through cooking that this herb really comes in to its own - the smell of sweating onions in butter with finely chopped Ground Ivy is truly divine.

Ground Ivy tends to prefer damp, shady areas, and is very common in woodland and woodland edges. Although not usually found in the same abundance as in woodland, Ground Ivy is also found among grassland, in hedgerows and in gardens.


Identification:

The 'ivy' part of the name comes from the way in which the stems creep along the ground in mats putting down roots, it is no relation to the poisonous Common Ivy (Hedera helix). When in flower the stems are upright and resemble other members of the mint family (square stems, opposite sets of leaves at 90ยบ to each other, two lipped flowers with 4 stamens; 2 long and 2 short). Leaves are hoof shaped with rounded lobes around the leaf rim with tiny hairs on the upper surface. As its smell is so distinctive, a rub between the fingers and a sniff will be enough to identify this plant once you're familiar with it.


Similar species:

There isn't much that Ground Ivy can be confused with, other than another plant in the mint family when in flower. Even this poses no real problem as the vast majority of plants in the Lamiaceae family are also edible, there are only three you need to be aware of than can be toxic if eaten in large amounts; Bugle (Ajuga reptans), Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia), and Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium).






Ground Ivy in flower (not my picture)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):



Yarrow is an extremely common plant that is found in grassy banks, garden borders, hedges and grassland - if you look closely at your lawn you will be sure to find it. 

As a herb it is not as versatile as Ground Ivy, the young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or used as a garnish - they have an aromatic taste, which won't be to everyone's liking. The best use for Yarrow, however, is to make tea with it. Simply fill a mug ⅓ full of young, fresh leaves, pour over boiling water and leave to infuse for 2 minutes. It has a mildly aromatic taste and is quite delicious. 

It is one of the few wild plants, along with Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), that actually make a very pleasant tea - I've read books recommending Scot's Pine, which makes a tea reminiscent of toilet cleaner, Ground Ivy and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) leaves also, both of which I find mildly repulsive - stick to Yarrow and Stinging Nettle (or combine the two!).

Identification:

Feather-like leaves that stand upright in clusters of florets. Flowers form clusters with five white petals and yellow centres (see below). 

Similiar species:

There isn't much you can get Yarrow confused with, if the leaves are feathery, it's found in grass and has an aromatic smell, it will most probably be Yarrow. 

Hazards:

Extended use of this plant can cause allergic rashes and photosensitivity in some people. It contains thujone, which is toxic if consumed in quantity, though this is unlikely to pose a risk when consumed as a food. To be on the safe side, avoid when pregnant.







Spice:

Herb Bennet / Wood Avens (Geum urbanum):





Wood Avens is a prolific weed, it can found in abundance by the side of footpaths, hedgerows and woodland fringes, most often in shady areas where the soil maintains moisture.  As well as being prolific in the wild, it also thrives in flowerbeds – my garden is full of the stuff.

Wood Avens leaves can be eaten, but they don't bring much flavour to the table - it is the roots of this plant that we are interested in; they taste and smell of cloves, with perhaps a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon mixed in as well. Not what you'd expect from this innocuous looking plant! They were traditionally used in soups and stews, to flavour ale, as a hot drink, and were also hung in clothes cupboards in Tudor times as a moth repellant. 

I'd recommended using a spade / fork when digging up the roots, as they are rather delicate and will break if you just pull at the plant.  More mature plants will have a larger central root with the smaller roots branching off from it, but younger plants just have the thinner, hair-like roots.  


Identification: 

The plant is easy to identify; it has three lobed end leaves followed by three pairs of opposite lobes down the stem toward the root system. It has five-petalled yellow flowers and velcro-like seed heads. See here for more pictures throughout its life cycle; www.wildflowerfinder.org.uk/WoodAvens

To positively ID the root it is important to keep the plant whole - it is incredibly difficult to differentiate plant species by the root alone.  Poisonous plants such as hellebores can grow side by side with Wood Avens, and although the leaves don't look alike, the roots can be superficially similar.


Similar species:

There isn't much to confuse Wood Avens with, the three-lobed end leaflet, its dark colour and rough texture are quite distinctive. 




How to process Wood Avens roots to a powder:

1.            Thoroughly clean the roots
2.            Leave in warm place for a few hours to dry
3.            Once crisp and dry, blitz in a blender / coffee grinder
4.            Store in a dry jar 


Tip:

The thinner roots have a much more fragrant taste than the larger central root. You can see in the jar below the difference in colour between the two; the top, darker brown powder is from the thick central root, and the lighter powder below is from the thinner roots.