Foraging for flavorful fruits and nuts in and around Grand Rapids.
Story and photography by Lisa M. Rose
The bounty of the fall harvests overflows at farmers markets — squash, apples, fall berries and greens. For the forager, the fields and forests also are overflowing with an abundance of foods.
Fruits hang heavy on the vine and bush, while nuts drop to the ground, ready to be gathered by both humans and squirrels.
The only limit may be in gaining an appreciation for these wild flavors and expanding your creativity in the kitchen to fully enjoy the foraged fall harvests to fill the winter pantry and the holiday table.
Wild fruits of trees, shrubs and vines
Wild fruits are our local “superfoods” — sources of unadulterated antioxidants and vitamins. It’s beneficial to gather them for both culinary flavor and nutrient density.
While cultivated apples take the cake when it comes to fall flavor, I love to find ways to enjoy the smaller Malus fruit that sometimes is included in landscaping and also grow in the wild.
In the spring, the crabapple tree is filled with clusters of pinkish white to deep rose-colored flowers that attract honeybees. Beginning as early as late August, the crab-apples ripen. I wait for the fruit to soften and then harvest them after the first frost, when they will be noticeably sweeter.
I seek out fruit that has little insect damage or mold. It’s worth noting the growing season affects the crabapple’s flavor: A dry season results in a drier, more mealy fruit, while a wet season produces a juicier, more succulent fruit.
I have a few favorite crabapple trees along my running routes and delight in chewing on a few during my marathon training runs in the fall. The tart flavor is a juicy treat, and a handful offers a boost in blood sugar that is easily processed and absorbed into the bloodstream.
Wild crabapples are high in vitamin C, necessary for a healthy immune system and a building block for healthy tissue repair.
In the kitchen, crabapples can be swapped out in any apple recipe: apple butters, chutneys, applesauce, jelly, cider, crumbles, pies and fruit leathers — though crabapples will be more tart.
The fruit is small, so removing the seeds can be tedious. I like to run the fruit through a food mill first for sauces and leathers to improve the texture of the product.
For those who like hard, fermented cider, crabapples can offer amazing flavor to the brewing process. They also can be pressed and fermented into raw apple cider vinegars.
The autumn olive shrub is the perfect example of a weedy and invasive plant that is despised among preservationists yet supplies a perfectly fine wild edible.
Autumn olives spread quickly along fields and hedgerows, crowding out other native shrubs and undercover. They are easily identified by their silvery, soft foliage. In the late spring, the blossoms sweetly perfume the warm breezes. Pollinators love the plant, especially honeybees.
Track the plants into late summer and early fall, as that is when the silvery-orange and red berries ripen. They may hang on the bush until mid-November, depending on the growing season. Be sure to gather fruits in areas that have not been treated with an herbicide meant to eradicate the plant.
The berries are small but pack a powerful citrus punch filled with antioxidants, lycopene and vitamin C. They have a texture and flavor similar to pomegranate seeds and can be used similarly.
The berries can be enjoyed fresh or frozen whole for winter kitchen projects.
While each berry has a small, single seed, don’t overlook the autumn olive as a wonderful fresh fruit for the table. Use them to top salads or morning porridges, or even as a side accompanying a variety of local cheeses in place of table grapes.
For cooked dishes such as chutneys, sauces or fruit leathers, run the berry through a food mill to remove the seed and produce a smooth texture.
Wild grapes are a childhood favorite — and they’re everywhere: The vines creep across open land, climb on fences and spread over abandoned property.
The grapes can be smashed and processed into juice for drinking or fermenting, or made into grape jelly or fruit leather. Be sure to remove the seeds with a food mill.
My mother would let the wild, uncultivated grapes climb across our property fence line, and each fall she would harvest basketfuls to process into juice and jelly for winter’s use, while my grandfather would ferment the wild grapes into wine.
For me, it is a signature fruit for fall and one that is so reflective of Michigan’s fall foraged flavors. Wild grapes are healthy, too. High in resveratrol, vitamin C and antioxidants, they help combat inflammation and build a healthy immune system. an
Abundance of nuts
Nothing says fall foraging better than nuts. From acorns to chestnuts to hickory nuts, foraged nuts offer complete sources of carbohydrates and are healthy starches to add to a well-rounded diet. And they are delicious!
While scorned by gardeners and landscapers, the acorn is a traditional staple of a wild diet. Both red and white oaks produce great quantities of acorns for gathering. Albeit there is great debate as to the delectability of the red, I find both can be used in the kitchen with proper leaching and processing.
Acorns foraged off the ground are naturally tannic and need to be leached in water to draw out the bitterness. The leached nutmeats can be used whole; toasting them brings out a nice roasted flavor similar to that of the chestnut.
Acorns can be substituted in chestnut recipes, including as a finely ground flour that can be added to baking mixes. Acorn flour is amazingly delicious when added to squash bread recipes. Remember: There is no gluten in acorn flour so baking projects need to be planned accordingly.
As a child growing up along the Lake Michigan lakeshore, I remember gathering the spiky husks of the beechnut in the sandy woodlands of the Big Lake.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned how delicious the nutmeats of the American beech can be — especially as a warmed, nutty beverage that is delicious in a spicy chai tea. Beechnuts are also a healthy food, offering minerals such as potassium, vitamin B9 (folate), and omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
For the spicy chai tea, crush and boil the nuts to make a mineral-rich, nutty drink, and consider blending the beechnut beverage into a local nut chai or hot cocoa with hickory nuts. The soaked and roasted nut can also be ground into flour and used in conjunction with other nuts like hickory and acorn to make a flour for baking.
While the true American chestnut is virtually extinct from North America, foragers can find American-Chinese-Euro hybrids in landscape plantings, along farmstead hedgerows and in permaculture gardens.
These hybrids exhibit similar traits to the American chestnut, including the versatile and nutritious edible nut — a nearly complete carbohydrate and protein, and a local and delicious superfood. Gather the nuts that fall to the ground in late September into October.
Chestnuts have a neutral, buttery flavor, making them an especially easy food for children to prepare and appreciate. French, Spanish, eastern European and Asian cooking traditions include the chestnut as a traditional food.
Chestnuts can be pickled, pureed into soups and used to make delectable desserts.
For an easy appetizer kids will enjoy, roast the chestnuts on the stovetop. First score a slit with a sharp knife in the bottom of the shell to allow the moisture to escape, thus eliminating exploding chestnuts. Once roasted, they can be peeled and enjoyed warm from the shell.
And don’t forget those abundant hickory nuts! The hickory nut is a common, native food that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes, from porridges and soups to cookies, cakes and chai beverages.
The hickory is abundant across Michigan in the woodlands and along hiking trails. In the late fall, as the hickory’s leaves turn a golden yellow, the nuts begin to fall from the trees. Look for the green hulls along the path — or later in the fall, the bare nuts can often be found along the ground.
The hickory doesn’t need to be leached like the acorn. It can be dehydrated and ground, then added to a nut flour-blend made with acorns, chestnuts and amaranth seed.
The hickory is another great nut like the beechnut to use in a delicious fall beverage. It can be shelled, roasted and boiled in milk or water to serve as the base for a hot chocolate or chai with other foraged roots and spices. GR
From left: Autumn Olive Flowers, Crabapples and Wild Grapes