Posts Tagged ‘wild foods’

Wild or Cultivated? Both. Also Delicious.

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As a general rule, I try not to review cookbooks until I have owned them for at least a year.  I buy them at retail, paying the same price that my readers will eventually pay, and then I read them, cook from them and think about them.   Many cookbooks that seemed very enticing when I first brought them home are relegated to distant shelves a year later.

This one still has a prominent place at my bedside, which is my favorite place for reading and thinking about food. Chef Emmons  writes about a year that she spent cooking from a wildly varied organic vegetable farm, Eva’s Farm.  This farm seems to be doing on a very large scale what I am trying to do on my property on a very small scale, i.e. there is a little bit of everything and no clear line between the cultivated plants and the wildlings.  Lambsquarters and nettles are given the same culinary consideration as spinach and chard, but there is no particular emphasis on their wildness; they’re just there.  This is absolutely as it should be, in my view. The difference between a cultivated plant and a weed is a rather slight one.

The recipes read as an ongoing series of seasonal improvisations on the level of “see it growing, cook it, eat it.”  They certainly work if you want to follow them closely, but in my view are better read as a vision of the garden through the eye of a cook, who might see infinite possibilities but can only cook one of them at a time. There is an emphasis on frugality but not an obsession with it. The use of herbs in lavish free-form ways is a delightful subtext. The sidebars are full of interesting thoughts about farming, cooking, and just being alive. The recipes include meat and dairy products and, in general, everything that might grow on a vegetable farm or be bartered for.

In brief, I love this book, use it, and recommend it. I put it aside this winter, but when the first greens showed above ground, it was back at my bedside. It looks a bit worn and has a food stain on the cover, which tends to distinguish the cookbooks that I read from the ones that I use.

Nettle Season

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If green garlic is always the first thing that I harvest in spring, nettles are always the second. When I moved to New Mexico I couldn’t find any and couldn’t get seeds to germinate, so I was reduced to calling an herb nursery and begging them to dig up some nettles on their property and sell them to me. Every spring I’m glad that I did. Gather the tender tops with as little stem as possible, wearing leather garden gloves. Don’t handle them without gloves, no matter what you read on the Internet. I always manage to pick up a sting on my wrist just above the glove, but it hasn’t killed me yet. Wash in a big bowl of water, stirring them with a wooden spoon. Drain and dump them into lightly salted boiling water. Boil for two minutes and drain. They are now rendered weaponless: the venom (formic acid) has been denatured by heat and the zillions of fine spines that do such a good job of injecting the venom into your skin are soft. Squeeze the drained greens dry, chop them up to eliminate any stringiness in the stems, and finish cooking them any way you like. They are awfully good just braised in cream with a bit of sautéed green garlic and finished with butter and a little salt. You can click on the “greens” category of this blog for some other ideas. They are a mild-flavored green and can be used any way that you use spinach, although the flavor is a little different; “wilder” is the best way I can describe it. They are ultra-nutritious and worthy of a place on your spring menu. They are even…gulp…worth buying plants of if you don’t have them naturally.

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Mild Wild Greens:the Siberian elm


There are some plants for which I have an intense and personal dislike, and the Siberian elm is close to the top of the list. It’s one of our more common trees, because it’s so highly adapted to invade and crowd out more desirable trees. The seeds come up everywhere, and their hold on life is astoundingly tenacious. Even as tiny seedlings, they have a deep root system. If you don’t get the whole thing out, they will come up from the root, they spread by root, and they produce, by scientific measure, a trillion skillion seeds per tree per season.

But this time of year, they have two good qualities. The first is that they cover their branches early in spring with bright lime green samaras, the casing within which the seed develops. They look fresh and green before anything else, which lifts my spirits toward spring. And, the samaras are edible and quite good, and available in mind-bending quantities. The samaras are round and paper-thin. Just pull them off the branches by the handful and add to salads or eat on the spot for a quick snack. Be sure to get them young, when fully expanded and a little over half an inch across but before the edges have started to dry and lose their intense greenness. Taste a few. If there is a “papery” feeling in your mouth, they’re too old. Use only those that are tender. The flavor is pleasant, mild, a little “green,” and very slightly sweet. They don’t have the texture or character to endure cooking. Just eat all you can, and if you have chickens, goats, etc., give them some too. There’s plenty.

Whenever you eat a food that is completely new to you, use good sense. Eat a little, wait a day, eat a little more only if you had no reaction to the first try. It goes without saying that you don’t put any wild plant in your mouth unless you are 100% sure what it is. For more on wild foods and foraging common sense, read anything by Samuel Thayer or John Kallas. Please don’t use my blog to identify plants, since identification is not my emphasis. You need a couple of good field guides for that. Start with Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate and you may end up with an intriguing new hobby.

Addendum: when I wrote this post 6 years ago, I forgot to mention that the samaras are a great addition to spring salads, too. I had a little more to say about them this year, and you can read it here.

My Bookshelf: Safe Foraging with Samuel Thayer


Periodically someone asks me what wild food books I recommend. There are a number of good ones, and a much larger number of bad ones. For overall high quality, level of detail, and knowledge of his subject, I’m a fan of Samuel Thayer and his books on foraging, The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. Thayer has chosen to cover a smaller number of plants at a much higher level of detail than other guides, and if you’re a beginner I especially recommend this approach. There’s plenty of time to branch out later. I also recommend the delightful books of Euell Gibbons. They are not field guides and I don’t care for the recipes much, but his sheer joy in his subject is infectious. I became interested in wild foods when I was 12, and my wise mother bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I wouldn’t poison myself. The gift has lasted almost 40 years (so far) and it would be impossible to calculate how much it deepened my love for the natural world.
This is a good opportunity for me to talk about my own view of foraging and use of wild edibles. Too many people with too little knowledge are out there seeking wild foods (and, worse, teaching about wild foods.) Most of us didn’t learn from experienced parents and grandparents, so respect your own learning speed and style. Consult at least two guidebooks before you decide that you have identified a plant, and read the first 40 pages of Nature’s Garden before you do any actual foraging because the information about a safe approach and common pitfalls is invaluable and well written. Remember that you are introducing your body to entirely new foods, and eat very small portions the first time, followed by small portions the second time, to determine your tolerance. NEVER assume that one part of a plant is edible just because another part is edible. Many common vegetables have toxic parts- the ordinary potato has toxic foliage- so there’s no reason to assume that edible leaf equals edible fruit or root, or vice versa. NEVER use this blog to identify a wild edible. I write about cooking and eating, not about plant identification, and the information that I give is not adequate to identify a wild plant when used alone, nor are my photographs taken with clear identification in mind. If you want online information, Thayer has an excellent website at Forager’s Harvest, and Langdon Cook has a delightful blog about wild food adventures in the Seattle area. Our climate in New Mexico is very different, but many of the plants he collects are found in our area.
That said, I can’t think of any hobby that has given me more pleasure than foraging. Sometimes people ask me why I seek and eat wild foods, when I have a garden and can grow all the vegetables I want. Euell said it best: “Wild foods are my way of taking communion with nature, and with the Author of nature.” I can’t think of anything we all need more right now than a positive connection with nature that makes us love it and want to protect it.