Wild Things

  • Carly Leusner’s homemade cracker, made with Queen Anne's Lace as a spice, as seen Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Leusner’s homemade cracker, made with Queen Anne's Lace as a spice. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Leusner points out a violet plant, which is edible. At right, ground acorns that have become flour. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carly Leusner points out edible plants in the garden of her Cummington home, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Carly Leusner points out edible plants in the garden of her Cummington home, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Carly Leusner points out edible plants in the garden of her Cummington home, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Carly Leusner points out edible plants in the garden of her Cummington home, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Here, ground acorns become flour. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carly Leusner collects sumac, fiddleheads, and more for cooking. She uses rose hips to make ketchup. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Spices made by Carly Leusner from edible plants, Oct. 2, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Carly Leusner grinds choke cherries in her Cummington kitchen. The powder will make its way into baked goods. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Published: 10/11/2018 9:55:45 AM

Carly Leusner’s oat flour cracker is crumbly and a little bit sweet. The crackers are delicious on their own, but combined with her homemade clarified compound butter, it’s an earthy and savory snack, with a hint of something that can’t be found in a supermarket.

Something wild.

“This is all edible,” Leusner says, leading the way through an herb garden outside her Cummington home, past a patch of Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot, which she baked into the crackers that are cooling on the stove inside.

She infused the butter with onion-like wild leeks that she found while foraging for edible wild plants.

“There’s a bunch of wild food here,” Leusner continues, pointing out plants that look like weeds, which have overtaken the beds of more common vegetables like peppers. She stops next to a dandelion plant, plucks a leaf to chew on, and identifies each flora species in the garden. There’s “ground ivy; there are dandelions; galinsoga. These are all wild plants that just showed up,” Leusner continues.

Leusner, 32, discovered wild-crafting, or foraging for edible wild plants, about eight years ago while she was at Hampshire College, where she studied health. She took a class in herbalism, and became interested in edible plants for their medicinal qualities. Around that same time, she and a few friends began hosting backyard dinners made with foraged foods like burdock root, cattails, and broadleaf plantain seeds, all of which are commonly regarded as nuisance weeds.

Those dinners eventually evolved into Acorn Kitchen, a collaborative business that Leusner currently runs mostly by herself. Each month, she puts on a wild-crafting workshop and cooking demonstration with edible plants and seeds. In the past, she had a wild food CSA, and sold products like jams made from edible plants and roots, but it wasn’t profitable enough to justify the work that she put into making the foods.

In general, she says the concept of cooking with wild foods has been well received by her students and customers. At least in part, she says that’s because foraging isn’t a new practice.

“People know in their bones that their ancestors have been doing this for thousands of years, and it’s only recently that we’ve lost the connection, or relationship to that,” she continues.

Collecting her own food has shown Leusner — who currently works fulltime as a cook at Alice’s Kitchen at Honey Hill Homestead, a prepared food service in Cummington — “that what’s exotic is just what I haven’t had before...and tantalizing flavors are right here. I don’t have to get them from across the world,” she says.

Inside, on her kitchen table, there were a dozen Mason Jars filled with lambs quarter seeds; sumac; wild carrot; rose hip ketchup; ground acorns; fiddleheads; and dehydrated choke cherries. In a cardboard box on a kitchen counter are even more jars, and nearby is a few wild culinary mushroom that she spotted on a tree from the road while driving.

Of all the jars, Leusner notes that wild carrot, which she uses in many recipes including the crackers, is her favorite spice.

“You can use it the way that cardamom is used in cooking and baking,” Leusner says. “(Wild carrot seed) is used as a sweet spice, but also to balance other spices in a blend for savory foods … Originally, I got into this as a cook wanting to have new flavors and tastes, with an interest in what was available to me.”

That desire to experiment isn’t exclusively reserved for plants. Leusner says she has friends who hunt and sometimes cooks venison or squirrel, braising the meat with wild edibles like elderberries.

Beyond broadening her own palate, Leusner says that foraging for and cooking with wild foods has given her a “deeper relationship with plants,” she says, and an appreciation for the impact that humans have on their environment.

“I learn about (plants) medicinally and energetically, and feel like I have a connection to their clan — the burdocks, the dandelions — they’re my buddies. So when I harvest them and make food with them, I feel so much gratitude for what they do in the world,” Leusner says.

That connection to nature, and wild food, began when she was a child, Leusner says. Growing up, her father worked as a chemist for a few large food corporations, including General Mills. Their family never stayed in one place for very long — New Jersey, Delaware, Minnesota, Massachusetts.

Despite their frequent moves, Leusner says her father, an avid fisherman, and her mother, a creative cook who sometimes prepared the fresh fish her dad caught, “modeled building a relationship with the land, not just our neighbors. My dad would always make a compost pile, and he would always find the best fishing spots.”

Leusner, who played hockey from 4th grade through high school, started cooking healthy foods while in high school to enhance her performance on the ice. She even made a health-food cookbook for her teammates.

During junior year of college, she got her first field guide and began looking up plants to see if they were medicinal. She started foraging because collecting seeds like wild carrot from Northampton’s community garden and around friends’ houses was cheaper than store-bought spices.

Over the years, she taught herself which plants are edible and delicious, and which ones aren’t, by reading books and experimenting with recipes. It’s a process that takes time — from collecting the plants, to grinding them up or steeping them in water, to using them in cooking or baked goods.

To make her sumac concentrate, for example, Leusner steeps sumac fruit clusters in cold water for between four and six hours. Then she repeats that process, removing the old fruit and steeping fresh clusters, about four more times until the water is concentrated. The concentrate, which Leusner uses as a tonic and in baked goods such as breads, is sweet and intensely sour.

Back in the garden, Lausner notes a few edible plants that she uses in salads, like curly dock, violets, and the dandelions, which she says are particularly nutritious.

Wild food “on average is way more nutritious than salad lettuce,” Leusner says. “Our bodies get sated faster because they’re way more nutritious. It has changed my relationship with food, because I’m getting nourishment faster, and I don’t need as much.”

Besides the economic and health benefits — foraging is free — Leusner sees it as a chance to connect with nature.

“Plants, especially, calm me, and I know that all humans depend on plants for their entire lives,” she says. “It seems like we can all find a way to appreciate them and connect with them. This is a gateway into this deeper exploration.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

Leusner will offer a free foraging class on cooking with seasonal wild foods, sponsored by the Cummington Cultural Council, on Sunday Oct. 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. at 48 Trouble St. RSVP is encouraged. Email Leusner for directions at Carly@wearewildfood.com.

Dandelion and Burdock Java

Collect and thoroughly wash dandelion and burdock roots. Slice them in small pieces and dry them in the oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit until they are bone dry and just on the edge of a warm nutty roast. Store the dried roots in glass jars.

When you’d like a warm, grounding drink: Grind 2 tablespoons of root in a coffee grinder. Place the grounds in a quart pot, filled with water. Bring the blend to a boil and turn it down to a creeping simmer. Let the herb decoct on the heat for 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half.

This beverage is a coffee substitute, as the bitter flavors are akin to America’s beloved beverage.

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