I seem to have developed a pattern for the foraging off-season. Each winter, partly out of a deep love of cooking, and partly to satisfy the urge to interact with wild foods even when few are growing, there is a theme ingredient that I experiment with over and again. Two years ago, without a doubt, my winter cooking experiments consisted of all things porcini. Last year, I got good mileage from prickly pears. This year has been crowned the year of the acorn.

Here's what I've learned this year. Acorns aren't just good for making bread and sweets. They stand up well in all manner of savory dishes. I've had particularly good luck using acorns in place of some traditional corn recipes like tamales and arepas. The first time I tried to use acorn meal instead of corn for polenta, I wasn't certain it would work. Sure enough, though, it pulled together after a lot of stirring, just like any good polenta.

Did someone dare you to eat an acorn when you were a kid? Yeah? Me, too. And I'm sure you spat it out in disgust, as well. It might have been your first strong experience of astringency, the quality in food that makes you pucker and your tongue feel fuzzy with near-electric bitterness. Astringency likely has a lot to do with why acorns have fallen out of favor as a food for humans. That hasn't always been the case. Many cultures have utilized acorns throughout the ages, including some of the first people to inhabit California. Even today, circular depressions can be found in the rocks there, evidence of acorn processing.

I suppose to some, the essential question would be why? Why would I awaken in the middle of the night to slip into the deep-mountain woods at dawn, just for the sake of finding a food I could buy for far less trouble?

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) has been my garden staple this year. Last year, my little garden was filled with a lush carpet of lambsquarter. Because I ate it (pinched it back) every few days, it grew thicker every week, and didn't go to seed until well into September. I'd hoped for more lambsquarter this year, but the rabbits nibbled back all the early starts. That left the door open for purslane to overtake my garden. Who am I to complain? I invite any edible plant that can thrive there without water to set up shop.

If making queen anne's lace jelly sounds appealing to you, but you don't know how to correctly identify poison hemlock, walk away. I mean it. This isn't a pair of plants you want to confuse because of the toxicity of poison hemlock. If you'd like to learn more about telling the difference between queen anne's lace (Daucus carota, also known as wild carrot) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), please start by reading this previous post I've written that has lots of pictures. The next step is to spend another year or two making certain you can tell the two plants apart. Only when you feel confident you can correctly identify both poison hemlock and queen anne's lace should you begin to cook with wild carrot plants.

Ever since I first tasted my friend's paneer tikka, which is cheese, onion, tomatoes, and peppers slathered with a spicy yogurt marinade then roasted, I could envision it with one of my favorite wild foods - milkweed buds. Because I enjoy them so much as a vegetable, and their season is so short, I've rarely eaten milkweed buds any other way than with butter and salt, or occasionally with garlic and sesame.

Cattail pollen pancakes are a necessary part of my summer ritual. No year is complete without a tall stack of their sunny yellow goodness. The challenge with cattail pollen comes in finding fun ways to use it without obscuring its delicate flavor. On its own, cattail pollen doesn't taste like much. But a little heat and steam is all it takes to wake up its milky/grassy/floral aroma. Cattail pollen also seems to excel in starchy goods, whether mixed into pasta dough or sprinkled atop basmati rice as it steams.

Some days become a part of your legend.

The kids in my foraging classes call it the potato chip plant, which gives you a clue about the flavor of orache (Atriplex spp.). Like its cousin lamb's quarter, orache is a mild tender green. The twist is that this plant, which favors growing in saline soil, tastes noticeably salty.