January 26, 2011
After the extraordinary December we’ve just had I have been eyeing my foraging grounds with much interest recently. This was partly because I’d been looking forward to locating a patch of velvet shanks – a particular and very welcome winter favourite of mine – but also because various friends around the country had been remarking on just how very lean the pickings were, even for January.
Now, I like a challenge as much as the next person. So I decided to see just exactly what I could find in my area, right now, in the middle of all this apparent cold and frosted barrenness and more importantly, whether I could successfully conjure a three course meal (and drink!) from it.
The first thing I noted after a little careful observation was that far from killing everything stone dead as you might expect, the depth of the snow and the consistent low temperatures had actually produced a surprising insulating effect.
Forage that I would normally expect to have been rotted or scavenged by birds etc., such as chestnuts and apples were simply laying where they’d fallen and once covered, they had remained insulated and preserved. The same thing was apparent with many of the leafy greens. In a normal January I would be watching for fresh young growth among old and frost-damaged material, but what I actually found alongside new leaves was a fair amount of sound, undamaged and fully mature ones. Certainly there seemed to be enough of everything to make a decent meal – things were looking up!
Once I’d realised the potential of all this I also realised that the now exposed fruits, nuts and greens were unlikely to stay fresh and undamaged for long. Pretty soon all the furred and feathered critters would also cotton on to this unexpected bounty, and then it would be a race between them and me. So I spent two days gathering everything useful I could find in enough variety and quantity, I thought, to achieve my goal.
Wilding apples, Japanese quince (ok, these came from my neighbour’s unappreciated hedge, but they were going free so who am I to be precious?), chestnuts as fresh and crunchy as the day they fell back in autumn last year, Glowing, sticky-capped velvet shank (an abundance of these, they really seem to thrive in the extreme cold!), emerald green and velvety young mallow leaves, tangy common sorrel, rosettes of mustard greens, guelder rose, tufts of alexanders shooting from the soil, frosted – but still useable – rosehips. There was a remarkable amount of stuff. And here’s what I made with it.
January forage starter:
* Batter-dipped mallow and parmesan fritters
This is a serving for one – scale up according to your requirements
100g Young mallow leaves (or approx 6 leaves per person)
150g fresh grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to season
Vegetable oil for deep frying
150g plain flour sifted
Take a measuring jug or bowl and gradually beat some ice cold water into the flour until you have a batter the consistency of thin cream. Stir in approx 2 heaped teaspoonsful of the grated parmesan.
Wash and trim the mallow leaves, then drop each one into the batter making sure that it is well coated. Remove the leaf carefully with a fork, allowing excess batter to drip off (it will have crumpled up but should instantly fan back out when it is fried.)
Quickly drop the coated leaf into the hot oil. Cook until both sides are lightly browned and crisp, then immediately remove it and leave to drain on some kitchen towel (you will need to work fast).
Layer the fritters on a serving plate, sprinkling them with the remaining parmesan and serve with a creamy yogurt and hedge garlic dip.
* Creamy Yoghurt and Hedge Garlic Dip
100g hedge garlic leaves
1 small carton of greek yogurt
Very finely mince fresh hedge garlic leaves and stir into the yoghurt. Chill and serve as a dip to accompany the mallow fritters.
Pan-fried Pheasant Breast, served with steamed & buttered mustard greens, chestnut and velvet shanks in a fruity hedgrow glaze, and potato and white deadnettle latkes.
* Steamed and Buttered Mustard Greens (to accompany the main dish)
Allow 1 large rosette of wild mustard greens per person
Generous knob of butter
Salt & pepper to season
Squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
Wash the mustard greens carefully, trimming off the root and separating the leaves from the rosette. Discard any damaged or really coarse ones and tidy up the ends of the stems. Pile them into a steamer pan over a couple of inches of water and bring the heat up until you have a gentle simmer. Cover the steamer and leave until the greens are tender but still a little crisp.
Remove the greens from the steamer and place in a hot serving dish with a generous amount of butter, optional squeeze of lemon and a pinch of seasoning. Cover and serve piping hot.
*Velvet Shank and Chestnuts in a rich fruity glaze (to accompany the main dish)
This is a single serving – scale up according to your needs
100g fresh chestnuts, peeled
100g velvet shank fungi washed and trimmed
Oil to cook
Chicken stock 2 tblsp
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 tsp white wine
2 tblsp Hedgerow fruit sauce or jam (choose a rich fruity hedgerow mix such as damson or rosehip and hawthorn)
Start by dropping the peeled chestnuts one at a time into a pan of boiling water. Leave each one for a minimum of 30 seconds before scooping it out quickly (it will be hot!) and peeling away any bitter inner skin. Peel each chestnut in turn taking care not to leave them in the water too long otherwise they may overcook and become soft and floury making them impossible to handle later. Check one by breaking it open – they should be just cooked on the outside, but still fresh and firm on the inside. Set aside on kitchen roll to cool.
Now, working quickly, drop the velvet shanks into a shallow pan of fresh boiling water and let them poach and for a few moments. Don’t let them over-cook , they should be poached but still have a good meaty texture. Once they are all cooked, set them aside also.
Place small heavy bottomed skillet over a medium heat and add a little oil. Gently fry the finely sliced onion until it has softened and begun to caramelise but do not let it burn. Stir in the crushed garlic and gently cook a little longer.
Deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring continuously. Add the chicken stock and fruit sauce or jam and continue to stir until everything is thoroughly blended and slightly reduced. Take the velvet shanks and chestnuts and add them to the pan, stirring to coat them in the glaze and gently warming everything through. Serve hot.
* Dead nettle and potato latkes (to accompany main dish)
Minced deadnettle tips 2 good handfuls
1 Alexander shoot (leaves only) finely minced
2 large potatoes, grated
1 small onion, finely sliced
Fresh ground salt & pepper to season
2 tblsp plain flour, sifted
1 cup ice cold water
Vegetable oil for frying
Peel and grate the potatoes and taking a clean tea towel, heap the gratings in the middle, fold up the sides and wring the cloth to extract as much of the starchy juices as you can.
Place the potato, onion and finely minced deadnettle and alexanders together in a bowl. Season well and stir them all together. Make up a simple batter by mixing the flour and water, adding only small amounts at a time until you have something the consistency of thin cream. Stir this into the potato mix making sure that it is thoroughly incorporated.
Take a large heavy bottomed skillet (or cast iron griddle if you have one), grease it well and heat until just smoking.
Working quickly, spoon large heaps of the potato mixture onto the skillet, pressing them down to make flat patties around a quarter inch to half inch thick. Once they are browned, quickly flip each patty over and cook the other side. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.
*Pan-Fried Pheasant Breast
Allow one breast per person.
Wash the breast and pick out any shot you find in the meat. Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan with a very little oil in it until just smoking, then quickly sear each side of the pheasant breast to seal it. Turn the heat down slightly, and leave to cook for approx 5 min each side. You want the meat to be just cooked through, but moist inside.
Cut the breast into slices and plate up with the mustard greens, chestnuts and velvet shanks and the potato and deadnettle latkes. Serve piping hot.
* Wilding apple over Quince paste, baked in a hazelnut shortcrust tart with Sorrel custard and served with Rosehip sauce.
For the hazelnut shortcrust pastry:
This recipe makes enough individual flan cases to serve 4 – scale your recipe up or down as required.
Water (to make a dough)
Ground or finely chopped roasted hazelnuts 100g
sugar 1 dessertspoon
For the tart filling:
200g Japanese quince, made into a paste (this is very simple to make. Peel and de-seed the quinces and cook them to a pulp in a little water. Add enough sugar to equal the amount of quince puree and continue to cook over a medium heat until the mixture has reduced and thickened)
2 medium apples
For the Sorrel Custard:
unsweetened sorrel puree (allow 100g of fresh leaves per serving per person – so for 4 tartlets you need 400g)
15g plain flour
30g sugar or 2 to 3 tsp honey to sweeten
1 large egg
150ml single cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Rosehip Sauce:
400g rosehips, washed, topped and tailed
Begin by making up the shortcrust pastry. Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine bread crumbs, then stir in the finely chopped roasted hazelnuts and sugar making sure they are well mixed in. Pour a little of the water into the flour at a time, working it into the flour mix and keep going until you have a ball of soft but not over wet dough. Leave this aside in a cool place to rest while you prepare the tart filling.
Peel the quince and cut the flesh into cubes. Place this in a pan with a little water, cover and simmer over a low heat until it becomes a soft puree, then sweeten to taste and continue to cook until the paste has thickened then set it aside to cool.
Grease 4 individual tartlet tins of around 3″ diameter and line them with the rolled hazelnut shortcrust, pricking the base with a fork. Line each flan case with baking beans and bake blind for 10 to 15 min on a medium heat or until they are just slightly golden and beginning to crisp. Remove the flan cases from the oven, pour out the baking beans and return them to the oven so that the inside bases can be crisped up and lightly cooked (taking time to do this will give you a crisp pastry case rather than a soggy one!). Set aside to cool.
Once the flan cases are cool, cover the inside surfaces of each one with a little of the quince puree. Peel and core the apples and cut the flesh into very thin slices. Arrange a layer of apple slices on top of the quince paste. You now need to make the sorrel custard that will be baked over them.
Take the washed and trimmed sorrel leaves and reduce them to a soft puree in a pan with just a very little water (you will need to take care over this, too much and the puree will be too runny, not enough and it may stick and burn). Stir the puree well so that any large pieces of sorrel are broken up and the texture is smooth.
In a bowl, mix the flour and sugar together, then mix in the egg and stir until you have a thickish, creamy paste. In a pan, gently heat the single cream until it is just about to boil. Switch off the heat and gently drizzle the flour/sugar/egg mix into the cream, whisking as you go. Add a few drops of vanilla extract, then stir in the sorrel puree.
Carefully spoon enough sorrel custard mixture over the apple and quince filling and then return the tartlets to the oven. Bake them on a low heat for approx 15 to 20 mins or until the custard has begun to set then remove the tartlets from the oven and leave them on a tack to cool. You can now make your rosehip sauce.
Place the clean, topped and tailed rosehips into a pan with just enough water to cover them (no more, no less!). Simmer, covered, over a low heat until the hips begin to become pulpy.
Rub the rosehip pulp through a sieve back into the rinsed pan and add the sugar. Cook this mixture over a medium/low heat until it reduces and begins to thicken into a sauce. Serve the cooled rosehip sauce with your wilding apple and quince tartlets.
* Spiced Guelder Rose and Rosehip ‘toddy’
Guelder rose berries 600g
Fresh root ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
two star anise
six Cardamom pods
sugar or honey to sweeten
Brandy, optional (one shot per glass)
Place the washed, topped and tailed rosehips and the washed guelder rose berries into a pan with enough water to cover them. Add the star anise, cardamom and ginger, cover the pan and simmer everything until the fruits become soft and pulpy. Gently squash the hips/berries on the side of the pan to extract as much of the juice from them as you can, then rub the mixture through a sieve back into the rinsed pan, discarding the spices, seeds and skins.
Sweeten the fruit puree (which should have the consistency of tomato juice) with sugar or honey to taste, and serve warm in tall glasses – with an optional shot of brandy stirred in if you choose.
Appended is a list of the wild plants used in this article. If you are unsure about the identification of any of them, use the Latin names to look them up in an ID guide. Only eat a plant if you are totally confident its identity.
Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum)
Hedge Garlic (Alliaria petiolata)
Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris)
Hazelnut (Corylus avellana)
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
White or Red Dead-nettle (Lamium album or L. purpureum)
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
Velvet Shanks (Flammulina velutipes)
Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica)
Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)
Rosehips (Rosa canina) or other Rosa sp.