Spicebush is a great option for those trying to pursue a lower energy lifestyle by focusing on local eating. The spices we use in baking – cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom and the like – historically were very pricey because they had to be imported from far off lands. (Asia, the Indian subcontinent, etc.) In our modern age of cheap fuel and global supply chains, most kitchens have these flavorings in abundance. But it wasn’t always so, and might not be so in the future.
Enter, spicebush (Lindera benzoin). For those of us in the eastern half of the United States, spicebush berries provide a tasty local alternative to these “exotic” ingredients.
Spicebush is dioecious, meaning the species has separate male and female plants; berries are only found on the female plants. The berries turn from green to red as fall progresses. The flavor of spicebush isn’t exactly the same as these other ingredients, but it has the same “spicy”, pungent, aromatic presence. Harvest spicebush berries at any stage. Even if they have dried already on the branches – say, if you find it in December or January – the berries can still be collected and used.
Dry the spicebush berries in a dehydrator for 24 hours on a low setting (I used the “105 Degree Nuts and Seeds” option on mine). Store the spicebush as whole seeds in the freezer for maximum lifespan. The high oil content in the seeds will result in them going rancid if stored at room temperature for a long time. Grind the spicebush as needed. I use an electric spice grinder for the purpose; remember to clean it thoroughly between uses or everything will taste like spicebush! (Which might not be a bad thing…)
Need some ideas on how to use spicebush? Google and Pinterest are you friends. Marie Viljoen’s Forage, Harvest, Feast has a plethora of fancy spicebush recipes as well. But if you’re looking for a simple, friendly way to become acquainted with the spicebush possibilities, you can’t go wrong with Spicebush Roasted Butternut Squash.
We always have a surplus of butternut squash in our garden, because the plant features a solid stem – meaning there is nowhere for squash vine borers to lay their eggs. Eventually the caterpillars devour the stem from the inside, killing acorn squash, summer squash of various varieties, spaghetti squash… Butternuts however are safe, and flourish when everything else succumbs. In addition to “real” butternut squash recipes, we also use it as a substitute for sweet potatoes or pumpkins in a variety of other dishes.
This recipe is a great way to introduce both black walnuts and spicebush to palates which may not have tried either previously. Note that I do not include black pepper in this dish, since it is another non-local ingredient, but feel free to add it if you feel it enhances the flavor.
I should also note … if I could forage butternut walnuts (Juglans cinerea) instead of black walnuts (Juglans nigra) this dish could be called Spicebush Roasted Butternut Squared!
A 3 lb squash will serve 6 as a side dish.
- 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed (the smaller the cubes, the faster the squash will roast)
- 1/2 cup black walnut pieces
- 2 Tbs unsalted butter
- 2 Tbs maple syrup
- 1/4 tsp ground spicebush
- salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast black walnuts for 5 – 7 minutes, or until fragrant. Remove from oven and set aside.
Turn oven up to 400 degrees. Melt butter until browned, about 4 minutes. Add the cubed butternut squash, stirring to coat with butter. Roast for 20 – 30 minutes, stirring at least once. Check for desired tenderness; the squash should still be slightly firm. Cook additional time if needed, checking every five minutes to ensure the squash doesn’t get mushy.
While squash is roasting, stir the walnuts, spicebush and maple syrup in a large bowl. When the squash has reached the desired tenderness, toss it with the walnut mixture and return to the oven in the pan for an additional 5 minutes. (This allows the maple syrup to caramelize.) Stir once more, and server warm.
Note: you can substitute a mild cooking oil for the butter to make this dish vegan, however the end result won’t have the same caramelized flavor.