Forest Finds: Foraging in Late Summer

Hazelnuts, chokecherries, and maitake windfalls yield surprising and fresh results
Check out hen of the woods foraging anecdotes and tips from the blog “So I Gather.”
Hen of the woods (aka maitake mushrooms) are just one of the finds you can forage for this summer. Check out hen of the woods foraging anecdotes and tips from the blog “So I Gather.”

Courtesy of Julie H. Case/So I Gather

The morels and ramps characteristic of a Minnesota spring have ascended to something of a northern legend, but if you missed out on them, don’t worry. The foraging season is far from over. Starting in late August, you can find a few hidden stars of summertime foraging: hazelnuts, chokecherries, and maitake.

If you’ve never foraged before, here’s a primer: Take 5%, or one out of every 20 plants you see, to ensure these wild treats will survive for others to enjoy in future years (and never take more than you can use). Impart as little damage as possible on the surrounding environment and the plant itself when harvesting, and for your own health and safety, be sure you’re not foraging in an area that is treated with herbicides and pesticides.

When foraging for personal, non-commercial use, state parks, national forests, and wildlife management areas are usually approved terrain. (Note: Three Rivers Parks and Ramsey and Anoka county parks aren’t cleared for this activity.) Four Season Foraging has a more expansive enumeration of foraging guidelines for the Twin Cities region.

To cook with these exceptional Minnesota ingredients without venturing out for the thrill of the hunt, farmers markets can be a good source, albeit in a scarcer and more expensive supply. Take a look at some guidelines on staying safe at farmers markets during the COVID-19 pandemic, and make sure to look up to see if the farmers market you’re going to has specific rules.

No matter how you get this trifecta of late summer goodness, here are some recipes for a satisfying treat or a wild rice salad to share below.

Varieties of wild hazelnuts
American hazelnut, left, beaked hazelnut, right

Tom Brandt/Flickr, right, Marilylle Soveran/Flickr, left

Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have found a match made in heaven when combined with chocolate (Nutella, anyone?) but they can be used in many other sweet and savory dishes, often adding a nutty, buttery, and toasted flavor. If you’re foraging around the state—northern Minnesota especially—you’ll probably find American hazelnuts, otherwise known as filberts, and beaked hazelnuts. American hazelnuts are native to Minnesota, and they pop up on the landscape as low shrubs in prairies and open fields. Over time, they have adapted to virtually any type of soil. Beaked hazelnuts appear as a dense understory in shady forest areas. Both types can be identified by serrated-edged and fuzzy-leafed low shrubs, and the nut sheaths hide underneath leaf clusters.

When the husks are beginning to turn from green to brown and the nut separates easily from the husk (before the chipmunks have gotten to them) in late August, prime picking time has arrived. After collecting, hazelnuts should be left to dry for a week or two. Setting them in the sun for a few hours a day speeds up this process. 

This recipe for Lemon Hazelnut Sea Salt Cookies comes from The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook by Tracy Singleton and Marshall Paulsen with Beth Dooley. The cookies’ buttery and crumbly texture makes them a perfect match for a cup of afternoon tea. If you’ve got a real bounty of hazelnuts, try this recipe for Hazelnut Macaroons from Midwest Living.

Photo by Mette Nielsen

Lemon Hazelnut Sea Salt Cookies

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest and juice of 1 small lemon
1 large egg
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of fine salt
¼ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts (see note)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats or lightly oil them.
  2. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter; then whip in the sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Beat in the egg.
  3. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and a pinch of salt.
  4. Beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture to make a soft dough. Stir in the hazelnuts. Drop rounded scoops of batter onto the prepared baking sheets, and sprinkle them with the coarse sea salt and the sugar. Bake the cookies until the edges are lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes.
  5. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for several minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. Store in a covered container at room temperature for no more than a day.

Note: To toast hazelnuts: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the hazelnuts on a baking sheet, and bake until the skins turn dark brown and begin to crack and flake, about 10 minutes. Put the warm nuts on a clean kitchen towel, gather up the corners, and gently rub the hazelnuts against each other to remove their skins (not all of it will come off).

From The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook by Tracy Singleton and Marshall Paulsen with Beth Dooley; photographs by Mette Nielsen (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Copyright 2015 by Birchwood Cafe, Inc.; photographs copyright 2015 by Mette Nielsen. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Chokecherries

Marilylle Soveran/Flickr

Chokecherries

Chokecherries, the inky, bitter jewels of late Minnesota summers, are intensely bitter and generally need to be made into juice before becoming palatable. (From there, though, you can use it in recipes for jelly, pie, the fruit leather one we share below, and more.) To make chokecherry juice, place four parts of chokecherries and one part of water in a pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer vigorously, covered, for 30-40 minutes, occasionally crushing the berries with a potato masher. Take care to not crush the pits too fiercely—they will release a cyanide compound if mashed too hard.

These berries are found in any sunny spot from forests to prairies. Spots where logging has occurred in the last five to 10 years can provide the light that these spindly, 10- to 15 foot-tall trees need, and conversely, swamps and other damp areas won’t yield many results. Look for narrow leaves and drooping clusters of stone fruits.

This recipe for chokecherry-apple fruit leather adapted from Colorado Country Life magazine is easily adjusted for your bounty of chokecherries (it’s a 1:1 ratio with applesauce), and it is an ultra-simple, sweet and tart, portable snack for any summer outing.

Photo by Rachel Turiel, guest writer for Colorado Country Life Magazine

Chokecherry-Apple Fruit Leather

2 cups chokecherry juice (prepared as above)
2 cups well-blended applesauce

Mix together chokecherry juice and applesauce and spread about ⅛-inch thick onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bring outside into the sun to dry for two to four days. Leather should peel off easily.

Courtesy of Julie H. Case/So I Gather

Maitake

Also known as hen of the woods or sheepshead, maitake mushrooms are succulent and earthy and pair well with stronger-flavored companions, like other wild mushrooms and garlic or onion flavors. They characteristically have smoky brown, overlapping caps, and as August fades into September, you can most easily find them around mature (or dying) oak trees. 

State parks may yield better results than state forests—any wooded area that is managed or has been logged might not be home to the crucially old hardwood trees. Check for these specimens several days after a good rain, or in areas that are damp and don’t get a whole lot of sunlight. 

My family’s wild rice salad brings together maitake and garlic along with cranberry companions for a burst of chewy sweetness, along with crunchy pan-toasted pecans for crunch and additional nuttiness. This medley of classic Minnesotan ingredients can be served warm, or cold for an easy picnic salad. If you’re wanting to take your meal on a picnic, read our picnic tips and products picks to bring your outing to the next level.

Maitake Wild Rice Salad

Serves 4 to 6

1½ cups dry wild rice, cooked according to package instructions and cooled
3 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil to drizzle, plus 2 tablespoons
6 ounces maitake mushrooms, well rinsed and coarsely chopped
4 medium green onions, white and green parts, sliced
⅔ cup dried cranberries
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup raw pecan halves, coarsely chopped 

  1. Place cooked wild rice into a serving bowl. Place the garlic and a drizzle of olive oil in a wide pan. The pan should be large enough to hold the mushrooms later. Cook the garlic on medium heat until fragrant and lightly colored, then add the chopped maitake mushrooms, adding more olive oil if needed. Cook until the mushrooms are reduced in size and aromatic, stirring occasionally. 
  2. Add the mushroom mixture to the wild rice along with the sliced green onions and dried cranberries. Drizzle over 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Toss to coat.
  3. Heat a small pan to medium-high heat, then dry fry the chopped pecans until they are lightly burnished and give off a nutty scent. Add to serving dish and mix in if desired.

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