Well, ONE of my favorites, anyway. As my family knows, gifts from me are often items that I have hunted and gathered at one of my other shopping outlets – the “take it or leave it” shed at the town transfer station, the annual church fair, or one of the thrift stores in our area. But the Favorite Store I am writing about today could be called Nature’s Storehouse.
Last month my niece Kate (at left) visited and we went out together with our gathering baskets over our arms. We walked along the sidewalks and woodsy edges in my neighborhood looking for what was available that day. When foraging I try to be respectful and refrain from gathering from people’s yards. Also, I follow the practice of foragers through the ages, of taking no more than a third of a cluster of plants, so that the plant population can regenerate easily. I want future gatherers to find a healthy stand there as well. I also prefer to harvest invasive or abundant plants.
The target species that day were grape leaves and sumac berry clusters. Wild grape vines sprawl over bushes and trees throughout our area. Some consider them a terrible nuisance, but I find them an abundant source of food and beauty. Kate and I harvested grape leaves that had obtained sufficient size (3-4″) but were still tender and close to the end of the vine. I freeze these or preserve them in a salt brine with a bit of vinegar or lemon. Later I stuff them with flavored rice, sometimes mixed with ground lamb, tasty tidbits called dolmas around the Mediterranean and in Central Asia.
Another use for grape leaves is to add them to the brine when doing lacto-fermented cucumber pickles. I learned about this from Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation. Perhaps because of the tannin in them, they help keep the pickles crisp.
We also gathered some berry clusters from furry-branched staghorn sumac. The erect red pinnacles were a little underripe in July, but now in August are in prime condition for harvesting. I dry these berry clusters and use them to make Sumac-ade – cool in the summer and warm in the winter – based on a recipe in Blanche Derby‘s book My Wild Friends. The berries have tiny hairs, so after soaking and mashing them in cool water for a while, I strain them through a cloth to remove the hairs, before sweetening slightly with honey. Sumac-ade has a refreshing tartness reminiscent of lemonade.
Returning from our successful “shopping” trip, Kate and I relaxed over lunch and shared news of our lives as we sipped our tea. I look forward to future visits with Kate and with other family and friends when we can combine visiting with food gathering and preserving.