Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wonderful Mint

“Parts is parts,” so the fried chicken commercial went. To many, the same lack of appreciation applies to mint. But mint isn’t just mint.

Most everyone who has ever cultivated a few herbs for kitchen use has set out some mint plants. These were either peppermint or spearmint. Of the two, peppermint has a more delicate nature and requires more care in order to keep it over the winter. Spearmint, though, seems capable of not only existing but also thriving in the most inhospitable environments.

Hybridizers have created lots of new mint varieties. These come in a wide range of flavors, some of which seem inappropriate (chocolate mint comes immediately to mind). Others have a pleasing appearance, variegated peppermint, for example.

But what did people do before the introduction of European varieties of mint arrived on these shores? Simple. They went to the nearest stream, brook or wet area and harvested the abundant wild mint that offers itself so freely to our use.

Wild mint, Mentha canadensis, grows throughout Maine. It differs from cultivated mint in that it has a more powerful and I think cleaner, minty fragrance.

Each summer, I visit different trout streams (fishing and foraging go well together) and do my best to catch a few brook trout and harvest a bag of mint. Whether or not the trout bite, I usually come home with some mint. This, I dry by placing in a brown ash basket and hanging it from a beam in my kitchen. The fully dried mint then goes into a recycled spaghetti sauce jar, there to remain until winter arrives and fresh mint is no longer available.

Sometimes I crave a cup of hot, mint tea. A heaping teaspoon of crushed, wild mint leaves and a scant cup of boiling water make for a strong brew. The hot water releases the fragrant volatile oils and these immediately infuse the air with their captivating aroma.

I sip on my wild mint tea, careful to finish it while it is still hot. The relaxing effect of this simple ritual is profound. For me, wild mint tea rivals homemade chicken soup in healing and comforting power.

People employed mint for culinary and medicinal uses since Biblical times. This unassuming plant long ago found its way into classical literature. Chaucer wrote in his Roumant of the Rose:

“Then wente I forthe on my right honde,
Downe by a little path I fonde,
Of mintes full and fenell greene.”

Alluding to one of mint’s medicinal virtues, Pliny wrote: “The smell of mint doth stir up the minde and taste to a greedy desire for meat.”

For me, mint is an old and dear friend. It soothes me, settles my tummy and does more than a little to promote good health.

Were I to have only one wild herb at my disposal, I would surely choose mint.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Home Canning Pays In Dividends

Canned food rates low on the list of gourmet foods. In general, fresh is best, frozen is okay and canned…well, canned goods don’t get any respect at all.

Perhaps canned food gets its bad name from the stuff we buy in the store. These vegetables are raised with little concern for taste or flavor. Instead, commercial companies must get the highest return for their cash outlay. So lots and lots of, for instance, big but not-too-tasty green beans outweigh a smaller crop of tender and sumptuous green beans.

But some canned goods truly rate as fine food or, as Alton Brown would say, “Good Eats.” Some home-canned products fall into this category.

As a forager, much of my diet consists of wild plants that I harvest in season and then either pressure-can or freeze for later use. As with domestic vegetables, I’ve found that some plants lend themselves well to home canning and others are best frozen. A few excel as either canned or frozen foods. Let me tell you about two of my favorite home-canned products.
Taraxacum officinale
Okay, I used a fancy word…actually, the official botanical name, for the common and lowly dandelion. But dandelions are more than just a favorite of old-time country people. And they have more to them than simply their inestimable value as vitamin powerhouses. Dandelions excel as a home-canned food.

It seems to me that something happens to dandelions in the pressure-canning process, something that enhances their inherent sweetness and diminishes that bitter taste that so many people object to. While I revel in fresh dandelions each spring (also in fall, after the first few killing frosts make dandelions less bitter), I absolutely go nuts for my home-canned dandelions in winter. These are so good that I save them for special times, to go with extra-yummy cuts of lamb or perhaps, fresh fish.

I would feel totally unprepared and even slovenly were I to head into winter without my shelf filled with home-canned dandelions.
Plantago juncoides
Okay, I did it again. Plantago juncoides is the scientific name for seaside plantain, or what old-timers once called, “shore greens.” The other common name, “goosetongue,” seems most appropriate, though, since the individual leaves are shaped much like their namesake.

Without going into detail about how to find or identify goosetongue (it’s all available in my book, Wild Plants Of Maine), I will say that goosetongue rates right up there with dandelions as a superb canned food. In fact, today I had a noontime meal of shrimp Scampi. This used my own, homegrown garlic and a side dish of home-canned goosetongue sprinkled with white vinegar and some Cajun seasoning. The end result was a gustatory treat.

For me, home-canned goods are preferable to even fresh, commercially-grown vegetables. My “freezer foraging” provides many inspired and elegant meals.

By the way, my next column in the upcoming winter issue of Maine Food & Lifestyle Magazine features freezer foraging and includes some recipes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Enjoying winter in comfort

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

With temperatures holding in the low 20’s even in the daytime and a deep blanket of snow covering the ground, my cottage is finally warm.

Huh? Doesn’t that sound counter-intuitive? Sure it does. Let me explain.

As with so many Maine cottages, mine sits on posts rather than on a solid foundation or even a poured concrete pad. So each fall, I must apply banking to the bottom of my wee cottage. The best stuff for the job by far is felt paper, what most of us used to call “tarred paper.”

Tarred paper, being black, helps absorb heat from the sun. But far more important, it blocks the chilling effects of winter winds. And that means a lot. Even so, tarred paper alone does not fully stop the insidious incursions of creeping, arctic air. Add an insulating layer of snow, however, and tarred paper becomes a highly efficient insulator.

So this last storm, a blizzard, put me into the comfort zone by dumping perhaps 18 inches of snow around my house. This had the effect of raising the indoor temperature by approximately 5 degrees, a really big deal.

I get a charge out of this kind of thing, since it points out how closely tied I am to nature and to the vicissitudes and caprices of each changing season. Temperature, wind or lack thereof, moon phase, presence or lack of sunlight, all have a direct effect upon my life. I truly feel pity for those who are so dependent upon manmade things that they fail to notice seasonal nuances.

At the same time, I suppose someone out there feels pity for me, too, poor wretch, having to cut and carry wood just to keep warm. But it’s what I have always known and it’s my own choice.

So let the winter wind howl, the snow fall and the temperature plummet. I’ll entertain myself by sitting by the woodstove and playing my Irish bagpipes. Later, I’ll cook a meal, perhaps on the woodstove and if not, on a gas range, of food that I either grew, foraged or butchered myself. For me, it just doesn’t get much better.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mural

A huge mural covered an entire wall in an old-time doctor’s waiting room. It showed a stand of white pines in winter. It was early morning and filtered sunlight created a dappled effect on the snow.

The old doc has long since passed away, his home and office sold to people who probably never knew the man. But this isn’t about the doctor; it’s about the mural.

For me, that picture epitomized winter. While waiting to enter the examination room, I would often sit and stare at the thing, allowing myself to become part and parcel of it. It had a cold, yet clean and pleasing feeling about it.

That same feeling has come upon me many times over the intervening years and it always takes me back to that mural.

Every once in a while, the mural springs to life when hazy, cirrus clouds filter the morning sunlight in just the right way. Then, the white pines behind my house become the trees in that picture. Looking at them I tell myself that I have seen this before, have experienced this before. It becomes a moment in time that repeats itself every so often, an old friend with a likeable and familiar habit.

It seems improper for me to examine this thing too closely. Acknowledging and accepting it without question makes much more sense.