November is a bit of a tricky month for foragers. Most of the Summer harvest is passed its best and Winter regrowth hasn’t really had the chance to kick in yet. That said, we have some absolute belters in this month’s Forage Box that really show off what the deepest, darkest Autumn can throw at us. Native nuts, a fiery fridge staple and our first inclusion of a delicious seaweed should see you through until December…
“Are you collecting conkers?” is something we get asked routinely when scrabbling around on the woodland floor. To the untrained eye, they could easily be mistaken for the toxic nuts of the horse chestnut tree, but a quick inspection of the outer case (much finer spines on an edible chestnut, as opposed to the slightly broader spines of a conker) plus the tell-tale ‘point’ of the chestnut will have you an expert in no time. They are worth pursuing too, because there is something deeply exciting about foraging for chestnuts. They are a bit hit-and-miss and usually get seen off by the squirrels before any human gets a look in. This year, however, has seen a bumper crop of these autumn staples so there is plenty to go round.
So what’s the best way to cook with chestnuts? A romantic scene of a roasting pan over an open fire is obviously the winner here, but a quick blast in the oven should also do the trick (5-7 minutes at 220C is plenty) but remember to jab them with a sharp knife beforehand to avoid explosions! The nutty, rich flavour is not lost in cooking and most Italian cuisine can incorporate chestnuts. We recommend preparing them for cooking when raw, which allows for easier peeling of the shell away from the nut. Whichever recipe you choose, you’re in for possibly the most quintessential autumnal flavour available right now.
Horseradish is one of those flavours everyone is familiar with. It pops up in crisp flavours, jars of condiments and even the odd Bloody Mary. It is so rare that the fresh root makes its way into our shopping baskets, which we think is a real shame. Why? Well, it’s a fiery edible that is far superior in its fresh form than pureed in a jar. In fact, just a pinch of the fresh stuff will have tears streaming from your eyes and steam coming out your nose.
Best used sparingly, horseradish root is great where mustard does the heavy lifting. Where you might have mustard in a sandwich, with a roast dinner or perhaps stirred into some mash potato, substitute in a little grated horseradish and you wont regret it. If you keep your horseradish in the fridge, it should last a while so you can enjoy that bold wasabi-like hit for some time. We suggest treating it like you would a block of parmesan - used as a topping every so often to give your meal a bit of an edge. We absolutely cannot recommend grating onto a spaghetti bolognese though.
To the untrained eye, horseradish growing in the wild will look a lot like dock leaves. There are differences in the way the leaves look - horseradish is generally larger, glossier and altogether a bit more succulent-looking - but the real test is in the taste. The good news is that dock leaves are also edible so a little nibble of a stem will help you identify the plant immediately. If you aren’t brave enough to eat a wild plant without knowing it (sensible!) then a quick smell will also do the trick.
There’s no point denying it, you may have to get your head around eating seaweeds. In western cuisines they often get overlooked as ingredients, but we can almost guarantee you will have eaten them in some form or other - they are often used as thickening agents or flavourings in the more ‘instant’ food you get made in factories and may only have to add water to. Yum. Not to mention their use in sushi, where they are a vital part of the dish, both for structure and flavour.
Here at Forage Box, we absolutely love using native seaweeds in all our cooking. Nearly all seaweed you find on UK shores is edible, and they are all full of nutrients that are sometimes tricky to come by in other food. Aside from the many health benefits of eating seaweed, they are pretty much all delicious and have a range of flavours that can be used in so many savoury meals. Our example this month is Sea Lettuce, so called because of its apparent visual similarities to you standard garden lettuce. It can be eaten raw but is vastly improved having been dried out and used as a seasoning, where its umami flavour is intensified.
In our experience, Sea Lettuce loses some of its potency in cooking, so it is best used as a seasoning, like you would salt and pepper. We’ve had success sprinkling it liberally over poached eggs, stir fries, roast veg, creamy risottos, miso soup, sauteed mushrooms… the list goes on. Our absolute favourite combination so far has to be with Jerusalem Artichokes, where the nutty sweetness of the artichokes complimented the rich umami taste of the Sea Lettuce. If you can’t get hold of artichokes, try it with nutty vegetables like spring asparagus, celeriac or plain old cauliflower.
We could rant all day about the merits of undisturbed pastureland and meadows, and how important it is to preserve such habitats, but it would become tedious very quickly and this is hardly the forum for that discussion. If you need any evidence of how rich with life they can be, look no further than the glorious Parasol Mushroom. Growing exclusively in the precious environments of undisturbed meadows and reaching the size of dinner plates, these fantastic fungi can be found across a couple of seasons and are well worth collecting. You needn’t worry about damaging the fungi itself - what you see growing as the mushroom is just the ‘fruit’ of what will be an enormous web of mycellium beneath the surface, so picking a mushroom is just like picking an apple from a tree, leaving no damage to the parent plant/fungus. They often grow in great numbers and a field full of them is an impressive sight, so despite the guilt-free picking that can be had with mushrooms, its always better to leave far more in place than in your basket.
Parasols have your classic mushroom flavour, albeit in a bolder form. The dried form will have those flavours intensified and will suit being used where a mushroom stock may be. Start by pouring the contents of the sachet into a bowl and pour over boiling water to just cover the mushrooms. You will immediately see them start to soak up the water and, in turn, will release their amazing aroma and flavours back into the water. You now have a mushroom stock. Use it in risottos, ramens or sauces. Just don’t throw any of it away - use all the liquid and solids in whatever dish you create. We think any new ingredient is best used simply to allow the taste to be highlighted and there is probably no better way of showing these mushrooms off than in a simple consommé (read: clear broth).
Two words: Cheese. Board.
This is a perfect accompaniment to any lump of cheese, much in the same way that shop-bought quince cheese or other fruit jellies pair well. The prominent sweet fruitiness of the jelly is backed up by an underlying bitterness that matches perfectly with cold meats or cheese. Spread on a sandwich, dollop it on a cracker or get it out for your Christmas dinner!
Rowan trees are very common throughout the UK, and are often planted by councils and property developers throughout suburbia. Take full advantage of the availability of these amazing berries and fill your baskets with what must be one of the most wasted fruits out there. Please remember to pick considerately by avoiding private residences and always leaving enough for the birds and the next plucky forager.