Wild Food Lab Projects:
Salted Fish in a Day
Wild Food Lab
Cooking in Forest Herbs and Leaves
For those of us who love taking a walk in nature, nothing compare to the smell of a lush forest. When I go foraging in the morning, I always take a pause to smell the air and enjoy the rich palette of flagrances.
The flagrances changes with the season, during the winter it is earthier, you have the smell of rotten wood and leaves, the wet ground, even mushrooms such as oyster mushrooms can impart some licorice quality. In Southern California, during the summer, it is crisp with some accent of wild sages or bay.
Flagrances and flavors are tightly intertwined. Something smells great and you wonder how that perfume could translate into a flavorful dish.
Cooking in forest herbs and leaves is probably a very old concept. My first introduction to it was with pit cooking years ago. Hot stones or coals were thrown into a pit and we would place local plants material on top of whatever we wanted to eat (vegetables and/or meat) and finally a layer of large leaves to cover it. The last phase was to throw dirt over everything to seal the pit. Many variations of the same method exist but it’s pretty much the same concept.
To add flavors, local plants could be used such as sages, mugwort, sweet clover, cattail, etc…
Old becomes new again and recently, using forest leaves and herbs has become more popular with chefs who are trying to capture the essences and taste of the local terroir. Vegetables are cooked in rotten leaves, grass and various foraged aromatic plants.
The old pit has been replaced by a pot, a heat source at the bottom, foraged aromatic and flavorful plants/herbs mixed with the meat or vegetables and voila!
Lamb cooked in mugwort beer and forest herbs : Grass, mugwort, sweet clover, fig leaves, juniper, curly dock and watercress
In theory it is a wonderful idea but in practice it requires some finesse to actually pull it off nicely.
I have this odd obsession about capturing local flavors so I’ve been playing with using locally foraged forest leaves and herbs for quite a while. If you’re an experienced forager, It’s actually quite amazing the amount of plants you can gather. In just one hour of walking around in the forest I collected the following: grass, nettles, mugwort, California juniper berries, various fall leaves (cottonwood, sycamore, etc…), sagebrush, black sage, sweet white clover, watercress, dock, etc…
Place you head into the bag containing all the plants, take a big whiff and there you have it! Hurrah! The forest is in there! - well, most of it.
Only problem is that if you threw everything into a pot with say, some lambs and potatoes, it would just taste terrible! For fun, I just did it once and it was pretty much inedible. The fall cottonwood leaves, sagebrush and mugwort, while having tons of aroma, are just terribly bitter. The black sage is overpowering and the earthy flavors of the grass/nettles are just overwhelmed by the other plants to even be noticeable.
I’ve tried tons of combinations, less of this, more of that and, of course, lots of failures but in the process I learned a bunch about the actual flavor profile of my terroir and how to manipulate it.
If you plan to cook with ingredients from your local forest or environment, you can take the easy way of cooking with safe and known plants (I.E. Cooking vegetables with just sweet white clover) but if you truly want the complex and unique flavors of the actual forest, you’re probably will go through the same process of failures and discoveries.
I’ve developed my own approach to that method of cooking. I’m not saying it is the best approach but it works for me.
The first obvious rule is that you actually have to know what you’re doing. Picking fall leaves or forest plants because they smell wonderful or look pretty and appetizing can mean a trip to the hospital or worse. That beautiful red autumn leaf on the ground could be poison oak, that fennel looking plant could be poison hemlock, that spruce branch could actually come from a yew tree and the awesome peanut butter aroma could come from jimsonweed (datura), a highly psychotropic and potentially deadly plant.
Foraging the forest: Mugwort, Juniper Berries, Grass, Cottonwood and Willow Leaves, Sweet White Clover, California Sagebrush, Black Sage, Sycamore leaves, Watercress
So you have to start somewhere. First pick plants that you’re 100 percent positive in terms of identification. While you do so, take photos or bring home samples of plants, leaves, etc… that you find interesting and do some research on it until you’re 100 percent sure of what it is. Maybe you can consult with a local forager, find online sources for plants identification (there are many), buy books about local plants, etc… whatever you do, only start playing with new plants once you KNOW what is is.
Research is actually a lot of fun, you’re discovering so much about your environment. Not everything is always listed as edible but although it’s not palatable, it can still be a flavor in a dish. For example, our local willow leaves are mostly medicinal but from a culinary perspective, it has an interesting unique bitter profile when used sparingly.
Being Belgian, I love potatoes. I think they absorb nicely the local flavors and they’re pretty neutral to start with. So first I cooked potatoes with various herbs, plants and leaves to experience how they would affect the taste. Bit by bit, I managed to build up a better understanding of each one and how they interact with each other’s.
It’s really fascinating stuff by the way. For example, a yerba santa leaf infused for a couple of seconds will imbue a wonderful floral aroma but after a few seconds, it become increasingly bitter. Green grass has earthy and green flavors while dry one has smoky qualities.
Based on the various experiments, I’m now using a method of layering and timing the ingredients.
When you cook with the forest, it’s always seasonal so I actually start planning my flavors in the forest itself. It’s so simple, just take a pause, close your eyes and smell. It is musky, spicy, sweet, earthy? Do you get hints of specific spices/ingredients such as licorice, sages, bay, cumin? Do you get other sensations or feelings/emotions? Light, happy, rough, cold, hot, dry.
Let it soak into you - how would just try to recapture it? Take notes if you want or use memory later on but for now you’re on a mission – start foraging your ingredients based on what you perceived. The hint of licorice could have come from local oyster mushroom or wild fennel, the earthy smell was maybe a rotten leaf or a turkey tail mushroom (medicinal). I’m always amazed to collect a large bag of ingredients in very little time.
Back in the kitchen, take a look at your notes or do it from memory – how can you recreate as much a possible what your experienced and want to share with others in a dish.
It comes from experience but you’ll learn how to layer, time and quantify your ingredients. I start with a base, what was the most obvious sensation. During fall, it was probably earthy, the smell of rotten leaves. For earth I would choose fresh grass, sweet clover and turkey tail mushrooms – that’s my first layer. Grass is pretty neutral and I can place a lot of it in the pot. Sweet clover has a strong flavor profile and I use it more sparingly. I would place these ingredients in the pot with what I wanted to cook (Lamb and potato for example). Add a bit of water and start cooking.
Often I also use a bit of brown sugar, honey or molasses. I think it helps blending the various flavors and tune down the bitterness of some ingredients. Beer works wonderful too and because I make my own beer with forest ingredients such as mugwort, yarrow or white sage, it’s a perfect fit
I would not use any of my fall leaves (cottonwood/alder/willow) yet because, from experience, they’re terribly bitter after long cooking but you do get this incredible autumn flavor if you use it sparingly and a few minutes before you stop cooking.
If you had some hints of very specific scents such as sage, licorice, etc… you may add the ingredients as well based again on your previous experience. Sagebrush is highly aromatic but after a couple of minutes is terribly bitter. Mugwort can be used sparingly and will work well ever over long cooking time. A fresh dry mugwort leaf at the end of the cooking time will really increase the aroma.
So you get layering of ingredients over time and deciding how much of each ingredient you should use.
The whole process is very intuitive but that’s what I like about it. Look at the early failures as learning experience and strive to improve.
Can you really re-create your local forest or environment in a dish? Try it and let me know.