Smoked lamb fat is sizzling on the stove. I can smell the toe-curling trio of meat, spices, and woodsmoke wafting from the pan. Then I add a few spoonfuls of porcini mushroom powder, and things get even more exciting. Almost as exciting as when I found these mushrooms, sometimes called king boletes, buried under leaf cover in a patch of Twin Cities–area woods earlier this year. Almost.
The dried powder browns instantly in fat, and I have to stir it constantly so it doesn't burn. I add a spoonful of water. The pan erupts with a sound like applause as the mushroom concoction changes color—from toasty brown back to beige—and releases a fresh waft of porcini into the air.
The preserved porcini aroma is entirely different from fresh porcini—headier, more powerful, and far more intoxicating. But it's also clearly evocative of the sun-dappled ground where I gathered them days after the heavy summer rains.
I keep on with the process: cook down, whisk, deglaze, repeat. What happens next is magic, a flavor metamorphosis: Each time the water evaporates, the color of the mushroom mixture changes, the brown hue getting slightly deeper. The aroma changes too, a roasted, nutty depth emerging as the sugars caramelize. After 30 minutes, I see the shade of brown I'm looking for.
I turn off the heat and taste. It's too intense to serve on its own, but mixed with a splash of water and whipped into a frothy sauce, it will be the crowning glory for a new dish of poached walleye and sochan, one of my favorite wild greens. This is just one course in a tasting menu I'm building from wild ingredients that I've foraged and preserved throughout the year.
Thinking Outside the Jar
I'm a chef, and for me, wild food preservation is not just about "putting things up" for later use; it's about bringing out specific flavors. So canning is just one small part of my preservation strategy. I dry herbs, make ferments, salt meats, freeze berries, make fruit leathers, dry and pickle mushrooms. If I go to the trouble of searching for and gathering a wild food, chances are good that I'll also find some way to preserve it.
Currently, blanched wild greens are taking up the bulk of my freezer space. During the growing season, every time I walked my dog along roads near my farm an hour's drive from the metro area, I brought along a bag and scissors. Every day, I clipped a different blend: sochan, nettles, wild mustards, waterleaf, horseradish leaves, amaranth, lamb's quarters, galinsoga, violet greens. Then, after blanching them in salted water and squeezing out the excess moisture, I tucked baseball-size handfuls into labeled plastic bags and tossed them into the freezer. Now I've got a whole season's worth on ice.
These little packets have become an essential part of my year-round nourishment, and a much-needed infusion of bright green in the dead of winter.
An Edible Scrapbook
I'm preserving more than flavors. Since I harvest the majority of things I preserve, I often find that a bonus is that it also preserves memories, snapshots of time and place, all revolving around the focal point of food.
Every time I pull wild blueberries from the freezer to thaw for pancakes, I can see the piercing blue Wisconsin sky that stretched overhead as I was picking in the jack pine barrens. I can close my eyes and recall wading through patches of sweet fern and myrtle—the resinous, piney smell of my surroundings wafting up as I walk. I can just about feel the sunburns I got while crouching over the blueberry bushes, harvesting rake in hand.
Looking at a jar of saffron milk cap mushrooms in brine, their color a shade of orange so vibrant it makes pumpkins look bland, I can still see the confetti of leaves on the forest floor near Duluth in the fall. Their cousin, the indigo milk cap, is a shade of blue so striking it looks alien. Blanching and preserving in seasoned salt water can preserve fresh colors that might be lost through drying or sautéing, and is still a popular treatment for mushrooms with people from Eastern Europe.
When I open a jar of dried ramp leaves, I can picture the football field–size expanses of them on the farm where I harvest the leaves (and only the leaves) every spring. The flavor is strongly garlicky, but with a deep woodsiness that anyone who has ever cooked with them would be quick to describe as "rampy." Anywhere you could use garlic powder, you could use crumbled or powdered ramp leaves—and unlike the garlic powder, the aroma of the ramps will put you back in a particular time and place worth remembering.
Nostalgia aside, preserving the foods I harvest also makes me more acutely aware of what was happening at the time of my harvest. Aided by the detailed journal I keep, I tap into my mental records of the time, place, and weather of that harvesting, which in turn helps me forecast my future year's foraging work.
The True Food of Winter
The most interesting aspect of preserving food is the paradigm shift it can have on what you think of as "seasonal eating." In my mind, winter is the prime time for us to be tapping our pantry staples from spring, summer, and fall.
To me, true "winter" eating means incorporating the stored ingredients from every season, with a rich array of flavors and textures overlapping and complementing each other.
As a cook, limiting myself to what I have on hand helps to push me toward using intuition instead of tired cooking templates. Necessity is the mother of invention, and limitations drive necessity.
"Limiting" myself, in this case, could be as simple as making some tartar sauce with wild onion or garlic scapes I pickled, rather than using store-bought pickles, or using maple when I would reach for sugar. It could mean using my homemade sauerkraut in a sausage soup made from sausages I pressure-canned in lard (in a riff on a German recipe), instead of saving that kraut for brats next summer.
If you're like me, you love Minnesota for its beauty in the growing seasons—and by the end of winter, I know it can be hard to not see our landscape as a desolate, snow-covered wasteland.
I choose to see winter instead as one of the richest culinary seasons, knowing that my shelves, freezer, and spice cabinet stand ready and overflowing with the assembled treasures of seasons past.