Foraging for Wild Foods in Winter

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Foraging for wild foods in winter. Barrel stoves can be used to cook wild foods while infusing them with a unique smoked flavor.

Editor’s Note: Studies have shown that bracken fern contains ptaquiloside, a carcinogen.

Wild Food Recipes

Strawberry Tea Recipe
Watercress Soup Recipe
Chinese Watercress Recipe
Black Birch Tea Recipe
Birch Beer Recipe
Hemlock Needle Tea Recipe
Smoked Venison Jerky Recipe
Smoked Fish Recipe
Home-Cured Ham Recipe
Home-Cured Bacon Recipe

Foraging for Wild Foods in Winter

At first glance the deep snow and cold of winter might seem to preclude any harvesting of wild foods. Not so.

Our old friend, the cattail, sleeps under the ice with almost all the goodness of summer stored in his white roots and tapered new shoots. It’s possible on our homestead to cut a hole in the ice of a pond, rake up enough cattail roots for biscuits, wait for the water to clear . . . then drop a small fish hook baited with a goldenrod grub down the hole and whip out the fat bluegills that came to investigate the disturbance.

I know a place in the orchard where I can dig down to a patch of strawberries that are just as green now as ever. Strawberry leaves make a good tea that is brimfull of Vitamin C and I have developed a syrup from the tea that goes good with flapjacks.

Over a hill and across the meadow a small brook tinkles and gurgles through thick woods. As soon as the sun warms a little in March, the patches of watercress in the brook will branch upward from their white roots to yield several delicious dishes.

Further north the black birch (Betula Lenta) and yellow birch (Betula Alleghaniensis) stand — naked but solid — against winter’s fierce blasts, ready to yield a variety of drinks for the knowledgeable forager. Where this tree grows, very often, the mighty Hemlock also sighs in the wind like a patient lady waiting for spring. From the flat needles of the evergreen comes hemlock tea (no relation to the poison brew — made from a ground plant — that killed Socrates), a favorite of woodsmen since logging days.

I want to give you some recipes for the other wild foods I’ve just mentioned, and then I want to tell you how to make and use a Canadian Smoke Box like the ones we saw at Ranger Lake in Ontario.

See the wild food recipes at the top of this article.

Using a Homemade Smoke Box for Cooking

I made my 14 inch by 14 inch by 24 inch smoke box from scrap plywood. The 14 inch by 14 inch top and bottom each has a hole cut in it. The bottom hole is at least seven inches in diameter and is fitted with a six-inch stove pipe collar. The hole in the top is about six inches across and has a cover that slides or swivels on a screw through one corner. This sliding cover is used to regulate the amount of smoke that passes through the box.

The top is also hinged and will fold back to allow the placement of meat or fish on wire mesh shelves inside the box. Evenly spaced inside my smoker are one-inch cleats that support 12 inch by 13 inch wire mesh shelves. These mesh shelves are not fastened at all. They just set on the cleats and can be lifted out for cleaning and when filling the box. That is, the top mesh screen must be lifted out to place the meat on the bottom shelf before the smoking is started.

One of the main advantages of the Canadian Smoke Box is that it can be placed over the stove pipe of a wood stove and — when the ham or fish or whatever is cured — the box can be removed and stored. If you build one and wish to install it permanently it could be set on the edge of a hill and connected with stove pipe to a fire box below. The fire box, in that case, could be made of stones or an old barrel and should be at least ten feet from the smoke box so you can regulate the heat.

I use a homemade barrel stove in the garage as the firebox for my smoker. A strap iron loop on the garage roof and a mating hook on the smoker supports the box in place. The stove pipe from the barrel stove is threaded into the collar on the bottom of the box, the box’s top is swung back and the wire mesh shelves are lifted out and loaded. The sliding cover is then opened completely and a small fire is built in the stove. I am ready to start smoking after the meat and fish is prepared according to the following specifications.

I make my sawdust with a chain saw and every homesteader should have one. Chain sawdust looks like thin curls of wood and it works very well for smoking. Let this smoke pour around your venison jerky for at least four hours, remove, pepper the jerky and eat it.

In my opinion venison jerky is the best food in the world. If the Great Spirit told me I could have just one more meal, this is what I’d choose. If you don’t have venison you can make jerky from goat meat, mutton, beef or any other meat.

Smoking with this box and barrel stove combination is a cycle of building up the fire and smothering it with green sawdust. When the flame starts to burn high on the dried out sawdust smother it again. The larger the bed of coals the more sawdust you can place on it. If you can build the coals into a bed a foot in diameter it will handle a good sized pail of green sawdust. Shut off the draft and it should smolder for hours.

There are only a couple of things that can go wrong: (1) The fire will go out because it runs out of fuel or the draft is shut too tight or, (2) it will get too hot and cook the cut you are trying to smoke.

If the fire goes out, of course, you will just build it up again and go on with the curing. Never use oil of any kind for restarting the fire as it will flavor the object being smoked. By the same token clean out all old ashes before starting a cure and never burn tarpaper or garbage in your stove while a smoking project is underway.

If the meat or fish gets too hot and is cooked it will still be edible. It might even be delicious so eat it and start over again. Smoking meat takes a little experience but is a very forgiving process and anyone can soon become an expert.

The flavor of smoked meat is largely a product of the wood used for smoking and suitable fuel can be picked up around any wooded homestead. Hickory is very good, apple is good and so is oak. In the north where hardwood trees are scarce, most folks use alder. Corncobs also work well but never-never use any resinous wood such as pine. When you have your smoke box made and operational, try the wood in your area on some small cuts of meat before you commit that ham or fish to a smoking that you may not like.

Build a Homemade Barrel Stove

A. Cutting 6 inches from the diameter of the barrel and bolting quarter-inch boiler plate across the opening with one-inch angle placed inside the barrel at the periphery of the cut.

B. Cutting a 5-inch diameter hole in the rear of the boiler plate and welding 2 inches of 6 inch pipe to the plate for stove pipe collar.

C. Cutting the door frame out of another piece of 10 by 13 1/2 quarter-inch boiler plate. The opening in the door frame is 8 by 10 inches. The door itself is 11 1 /2 by 8 1/2 half-inch plate steel. Hinges are 1 inch sections of 5/8 inch tubing with a 1/2-inch steel rod axis. Five inches of quarter-inch strap iron secured with 1 inch of 1 1/2-inch angle welded to the door frame makes the latch. The door frame is bolted over an 8 by 10 inch opening in the barrel.

D. The draft is controlled by blocking the barrel opening at bottom of picture with pipe bushings.

E. When barrel burns or rusts out remove top and door and install them on another barrel. This makes an excellent forge as well as a tremendous heater.

See the smoked and cured meat and fish recipes at the top of this article.

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