There’s this one meal that I still think about, years later, whenever I smell smoke on a wool sweater. We were jump-shooting ducks from a canoe, slipping down this little switchback ribbon of a stream toward a cranberry bog. It was a tremendous year for fruit—the bog was gem-studded with them and they dangled over the banks of the stream like rubies.
We gorged while we picked, but there were so many and it took us so long that we worked up a hunger for more than fruit. We had done well on black ducks and decided to renew ourselves with a pair of breasts. We built a small fire onshore and once the coals were hot we laid them with alder branches. We used the meadow-smelling fat that rendered out from under the skin to simmer a handful of cranberries into a pan sauce. We let the alder baste the breasts in smoke before we stoked the fire for the final sear, and ate them, warm and cranberry-red, with a pinch of the sea salt I kept in my pack. I can still see our fingers and smiles gleaming, and our breath billowing into the cold while we chewed each bite for a long, long time.
Some might say that meal is memorable because of the idyllic setting, and they’d be right, but the other factor that makes it stand out is that it had all of the essential elements of what the human mouth wants. Chef Samin Nosrat defines these elements as salt, fat, acid, and heat, and when balanced well, can turn minimal ingredients into transformative experiences. The salt from the sea, the fat of the duck, the acid of the cranberries, the heat and smoke of the alder wood; it had it all.
I lean heavily on these principles, especially while cooking in the winter. I’ve got a little meat in the freezer with plenty of fat, and paired with this is what makes my winter meals memorable: those basic elements of taste and terroir. Unless you’re living in the citrus-laden South or the ever-blooming hills of California, your winter landscape might not be spilling over with things to forage, but no matter your climate, there are always foundational flavors to be found.
How to Forage for Salt Salt gets unfairly lumped into one white, homogenous pile of uniform granules when salts are really a spectrum of colors and flavors that mirror the diversity of the places they come from. Winter is a perfect time to collect your own because of the lower ambient humidity, and in my case, an ever-burning woodstove. There are many different sources of salt, from sandy inland salt deposits to rock salt, to brine springs, salt lakes, and of course, the ocean.
Salt has always been essential to human health, so there are long histories of people harvesting it using all kinds of methods. You should check your local water qualities and regulations to find the best place to collect. To make sea salt, I like to use a 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid. I tie a rope to the handle and toss it off the end of a jetty, bridge, or boat. At home, I’ll pour it, through a fine strainer, into a large pot and bring it to almost boiling on the cookstove before I transfer it to a wide, stainless steel tray, and let it steam away on the woodstove. After a few days, most of the water will be gone, leaving a slurry that I’ll spread into paper-lined sheet trays in a sunny window to finish drying. It’s ready to use at this stage, but should be crumble-dry before putting it into jars.
A close kin to salt on the palette is seasoning. If you don’t have access to salt, or you’re trying to limit salt in your diet, bold seasonings are your friend. Common juniper berries are my safety net for meals that need a little boost. This species of juniper is the most common shrub in the world, thriving in the lean, mean places that no one else dares to live. If it’s sandy, windy, or sun-baked, there’s probably juniper there. You can collect the berries (botanically speaking they’re actually cones, but almost always referred to as berries) year-round even in harsh winter climates. They’re unmatched company for wild game, fermented vegetables, gin-lovers, beverages, and even play well with desserts.
If you’re in a place where leafy vegetables withstand the winter, pungent wild greens, dried and powdered, or blended into green sauces like pesto, chimichurri, or Brad Leone's Spoon Sauce are powerhouses of flavor that can be used in place of salt to liven up your winter meals. Good candidates for this are garlic mustard, black mustard, wintercress, watercress, wild onions, and oxeye daisies.
Forage for Winter Fruit I used to think that all of the fruit was gone to the birds by midwinter, but I’ve been surprised by the amount left on the trees. Common candidates for winter collection are rosehips, crabapples, mountain ash berries, and cranberries (highbush and lowbush). They’ll be soft, which might lead you to believe they’re rotten, but they’ve just gone through a process that some fruit actually benefits from, called “bletting.” Not all fruit improves with bletting, but the tart ones that I’ve mentioned here actually get sweeter and more complex.
The flesh, custard-like now, is often not great for fresh eating, but the depth of flavor that these lightly fermented fruits bring to the kitchen cannot be achieved with fresh, summer fruit. These will bring your acid game to the next level. I love to use bletted crabapples to make a robust apple scrap vinegar, mountain ash berries make top-shelf cocktail bitters, cranberries cook down with sugar into a jewel-toned syrup, and my most reached-for item in the pantry is a bottle of rosehip vinegar.
Forage for Smoking Wood Smoke is a primal force in the kitchen. Having access to different kinds of wood will give you a new array of flavors to play with as your “heat” element. Winter is my favorite time to collect wood for smoking because this is when a lot of fruit trees get pruned. Orchards will often have pruning workshops or pruning parties and a lot of times the pruned branches are up for grabs. If your style of smoking can use small-diameter wood, this is a jackpot. If you just want a few branches to try, there’s probably an apple, cherry, or plum in the neighborhood that’s overdue for a haircut. Other prime choices for smoking that you likely have growing nearby are alder, maple, oak, hickory, and pecan.
Any limbs smaller than my forearm, I’ll take with either a small handsaw or loppers. Anything larger is for the chainsaw and will also need to be split. I love the small diameter limbs because they’re easy to casually collect whenever the opportunity arises and throw in the pack on a whim. Then they just need to dry for a week or two before they’re cut into whatever size chunks you want, depending on what you’re smoking. I am partial to alder, cherry, and maple because their flavors are distinct but versatile and they’re prolific in the places that I hunt, forage, and fish.