Lately I’ve been mining the Mother Earth News archive disks for bits of relevant wisdom—which are abundant there. James E. Churchill’s advice on foraging and preparing wild foods from one of the earliest issues, September/October 1970, couldn't be more timely right now. Free food is abundant—and could be growing between the cracks in your sidewalk!
"Anyone who lives in the settled regions of the United States should be close enough to chicory to be able to gather all they want," Churchill wrote. Chicory is found in vacant city lots and along most country roads. The plant looks like a dandelion, with slightly wider and deeper green leaves. “In short,” he writes, “if you find a plant with leaves like a dandelion and a tall stalk with blue flowers growing out the center, you can be pretty sure you've found chicory.”
In spring, trim tender chicory leaves before they are as tall as a tea cup. Sort out dead leaves and grass and wash the remaining greens twice. Drop them in boiling water and boil for about two minutes. Remove, drain and discard the water. (If you don't mind a little bitterness, you may stop washing now.)
Boil the leaves a second time for five minutes. Drain and discard the second water and add a third. Boil for an additional five minutes, drain the water and serve the greens with butter, salt and pepper.
Blanched chicory leaves can be used for a salad and served with your favorite dressing, or they can be boiled like cabbage.
To make braised chicory, thoroughly wash a pint of blanched leaves and put in a sauce pan with a half-inch of water in a saucepan. Salt and add four tablespoons of margarine (so, it was the ‘70s—we’d use real butter today!) and the juice of a small lemon. Simmer gently for 45 minutes and serve hot in the juice.
Chicory leaves are edible all during the growing season. It is merely a matter of boiling them and changing the water a sufficient number of times to reduce the bitterness to a temperament that you find palatable.
You can also use chicory to make a coffee substitute. Dig the plants and cut off the leaves. Peel the roots, slice them in thin strips and roast in a 250-degree oven for about four hours. Grind the roasted roots and use one teaspoon of ground root for each cup of water. Boil for about three minutes.
Mint grows in open, sunny marshes and fields and is generally easy to find. Mint family plants have square stalks and an obvious minty smell. Churchill says the best bet is to “keep looking and tasting until you find a patch of mint that pleases your palate.”
To dry leaves for tea, spread the plants out on a newspaper in a warm place out of the sun. When they are very dry, strip the leaves from the stalks and store them. Brew tea by pouring one cup of boiling water into a tea pot for each teaspoon of dried leaves. Let it steep for several minutes. Mint tea can be made from the green leaves also. Just use twice as many of them.
To make mint jelly, chop or grind 1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves and stems. Add 3 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 10 minutes. Pour through a strainer or sieve to remove the plant parts from the liquid. Measure three cups of the liquid into a saucepan. Add one box of commercial pectin. Bring to a boil. Add four cups sugar. Bring to a high rolling boil, stirring constantly, and hold for one minute. Remove, skim off foam with a metal spoon and pour into jelly glasses. Seal with melted paraffin.
Churchill’s father told him that in the 1920s every family had a catnip patch and every housewife knew how to brew a swift cup of catnip tea. “I suppose it was from those gardens that catnip got scattered around like it is because, now in Wisconsin, it's hard to go for a walk without encountering this mint,” he wrote. “It was used in the old days to cure colds and stomach aches of all kinds.”
Catnip is a member of the mint family, as evidenced by its square stem. Catnip leaves are best picked for tea just before the plant blossoms. The leaves should be dried out of the sun, ground and used in the proportion of one heaping teaspoon of tea to a cup of water.
Catnip tea is never boiled. The leaves and cold water can be mixed together and the water heated to just short of boiling in a covered container. Let it steep then for several minutes and serve with milk and sugar, if you have any.
“Blackberry picking is a delight to the wild food forager,” Churchill wrote. “There are not too many plants that will yield as much for as little effort. Some rules to remember are: Protect yourself from biting insects and wear a picking can around your neck.”
Blackberries grow on canes 2 to 6 feet in height, often in hardwood forests because they prefer almost the same soil as oak and hickory trees. They also seem to like hilly terrain.
Churchill made a picking can by drilling opposite holes near the top of a discarded coffee can and tying the ends of a cord through the holes so the can will dangle on the lower chest, leaving both hands free to pick, swat bugs or move the thorny canes around.
He includes this simple blackberry shortcake recipe: "Cut" 1/2 cup lard or shortening into 2 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar and 2 teaspoons sugar. When pea-sized lumps form, add 2/3 cup milk and stir until dough "follows" fork around bowl. Roll out a half-inch thick dough sheet on floured kneading board and cut with the top of a water glass that has been dipped in flour before each cut. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 10 minutes in a 450-degrees oven. Grind or mash berries and sugar to taste. Split and butter the warm biscuits and ladle sweetened berries over biscuit halves. Serve with whipped cream, if available.
“I don't recommend this recipe for weight watchers,” Churchill added.