Not everything in the woods goes dormant during the winter. One wild ingredient in particular is just regaining its footing after shriveling up in the heat of summer. With the fall rains and cooler temperatures, licorice ferns come back to life, unfurling their spiky foot-long fronds just in time to land on menus in early spring.
The licorice fern is one of those plants that give our region its lush green appearance. Colonizing in damp woods along the Pacific coast, it ranges inland to the wet forests of Idaho, but the Pacific coast from California to Alaska is the strike zone, where large concentrations of the fern paint prehistoric-looking waves of emerald across the treetops, lighting up in dappled sunlight. To look skyward through a canopy bristling with the fronds of licorice ferns is to become dizzy from the verdant growth that sometimes seems to run amok around us.
But it’s not the attractive frond we’re after. It’s the root, more properly called a rhizome. The licorice fern’s scientific name is Polypodium glycyrrhiza, which translates roughly as “many-footed sweet root.”
Historically, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest chewed on this root for its spicy sweetness, a lip-puckering flavor that’s a cross between ginger and—you guessed it—licorice. It was also believed to have medicinal properties that could cure colds and sore throats.
Today’s foragers seek the root’s striking flavor, and licorice fern is showing up on local restaurant menus with increasing frequency as chefs try to incorporate wild tastes from just beyond our back doors.
That said, the licorice fern is still one of those rain forest specialties that has a whiff of novelty to it. It’s certainly not a wild food that will fill you up on a camping trip. In fact, you don’t really eat it at all, unlike its cousin the lady fern, which produces fiddleheads—the edible new growth of the fern (visit seattlemag.com and search for “fiddlehead fern”). Rather, the roots of licorice ferns, chopped into tiny bits, are primarily used for making infusions to flavor other foods and drinks.
Use licorice fern roots to enhance food and drinks
Forage for licorice fern in mixed woods of evergreen and deciduous trees in lower elevations. It hugs the mossy sides of hardwoods in particular, extending up the trunks and across the boles, where large masses of it will be tantalizingly out of reach. But it also carpets fallen trees, stumps and even rock faces. A network of roots spreads beneath the moss, anchored to its host. Harvest a handful of these roots by gently pulling them away from the moss and then clean them by washing and peeling away dirt and debris.
In the past, I’ve jazzed up a simple beurre blanc sauce for halibut by spicing it with a tablespoon of chopped licorice fern (and later straining it out), but lately my preference has been to make liqueurs and infusions. Cut the root into small pieces so that the flavor can be extracted by vodka, water or some other liquid. I’ve been told licorice fern makes a wonderful homemade soda, and one of these days I plan to make an entirely local version of Seattle’s favorite dish, pho, using licorice fern in the broth in place of star anise.
Infuse the essence of licorice fern in a liqueur
Licorice Fern Liquer Recipe
» Peel and chop several finger-length pieces of licorice fern root into small pieces.
» Place chopped roots in a half-pint canning jar and cover with vodka.
» Refrigerate for three weeks, shaking once a week or so.
» Strain and measure liquid. Make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar that is about half the amount of the reserved liquid. For example, for my 2/3 cup of infused vodka, I made a syrup with 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. To make the syrup, boil the water and whisk in sugar until fully dissolved. Allow syrup to cool, then add to reserved liquid.
Try using licorice fern liqueur in your favorite Champagne cocktail. It adds a kick of the rain forest.
Follow Langdon Cook's further adventures at fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com