Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Spring Wild Edibles

      Finally the weather has warmed up, and we can say we are definatly feeling spring. For many parts of the country it has been spring for a while, but further north it has only been these last few weeks that the weather has finally changed over from winter to spring.

     Spring is always a time for cleaning up and starting fresh things. We clean out or garages, open the windows, and plant new gardens. Plants begin to bloom, leaves reappear, and we start thinking about fresh foods again.

      One of the greatest places to find fresh food is out in the forests. Wild edibles are a nutritional, fresh, fun and free! So take a pleasant walk in the woods and pick up some tasty morsels for dinner.

      Wild edibles are a great way to add variety and taste to your meals however there are always a few guidelines to follow when collecting wild edibles.

     1. First make sure you have positive identification of something before you eat it. Nothing could ruin your day more than eating the wrong plant. Guidebooks and knowledgeable people in your area are a good place to start. Having three forms of positive identification of a plant is always best before you eat something.

      2.  Make sure you know what poisonous plants are in you area, and if any of those are look a likes to something you are trying to find.

      3. Know how to use your plants. Which parts can you use, when they can be used, and if they have to be cooked. Some plants can be harmless when cooked, but deadly when eaten raw so make sure you know how to eat them.

     4. Always wash your wild edibles. There may not be pesticides on the plant if it is in the forest, but there can be plenty of other harmful substances that get on a plant. Washing your plants can help you avoid pathogens that could come from other animals, birds or insects.

     5. Don't collect near roads, power lines, train tracks or other possibly contaminated areas. You don't know what may have leached into the soil, and what may have been picked up by the plant.

     6. Try just one plant at a time. Just because a plant is edible, does not mean that you aren't allergic to it. Also eat only small amounts of a plant when it is new to you, and only after you have positively identified it.

     7. The most important rule though is if you are in doubt, DON'T eat it. Eating the wrong thing can kill you so make sure you know what your eating before you put it anywhere near your mouth.

     So if you are ready to begin collecting some wild edibles, these are a few of our favorite edibles that are appearing with the spring weather.

1. Stinging Nettles
     Stinging nettles are named such for a reason. The leaves are tipped with formic acid which can create a burning sensation for up to twelve hours. Because of this property this plant is often avoided by people, but in reality stinging nettles are actually a great wild edible.

     Easy to identify, stinging nettles are a dark green with spiky leaves on a long straight stem. If that isn't enough to identify them, you can always touch the ends of the leaves to check.

     When gathering stinging nettles you should be conscious of the plant's name, and dress accordingly. You should wear long sleeves to help prevent brushing it against exposed areas of skin, and wear gloves.  When gathering nettles it is best to do it during spring months for better nutrition. You want to collect the stems with the top four leaves of plant.

     Like a number of wild edibles, nettles must be cooked before they are consumed. If you thought brushing up against a stinging nettle was bad, think of what eating one would be like! Cooking the nettles eliminates the toxins on the hairs of the leaves, rendering this plant safe to eat. This can be done through slowly drying the leaves or by blanching the leaves.

     Once the toxins are eliminated, nettles can be prepared and eaten in many different ways from being cooked up in a saucepan to being put together to make a pesto.
Check out some great recipes here:  Recipes

2. Morel Mushrooms
     Who hasn't heard of morel mushrooms. To many they seem to be the prized mushroom of mushroom hunters. While some say they can be grown in your backyard or commercially, the general consensus is that morels are a notoriously fickle mushroom to grow, and that is why it is generally only collected in the wild.

     Of course because these mushrooms grow in the wild, this means that you too can seek out your own morels to have with dinner. If you are a beginner though and you have never hunted mushrooms before, don't worry because morels are the best mushroom to start with. Morels are considered to be the easiest to identify and safest to eat of all wild mushrooms.

     Morels have a distinct honeycomb appearance and are generally found in wetter areas of forests that have deciduous trees. Anywhere from one to six inches tall, morels appear across the country during spring, but seem to be most concentrated in the Midwest. There are number of different types of morels as well from white and yellow morels to black morels.

     There are a few mushrooms known as "false morels". These are mushrooms that look like morels but are not, and they should not be eaten. Luckily false morels are generally fairly easily to identify. The first way is to start off with the cap. A morel has a cap that looks like honeycombs. There are some mushrooms that have a similar appearance, but the cap with have more of a wrinkly folded type of cap, rather than it looking like honeycombs. On a real morel the cap will also be fairly uniform.

     A second easy way of identifying a false morel is by slicing the mushroom in half, lengthwise. A morel is hollow in the center while a false morel will not be hollow.

     The final thing you can look for is how the cap of the mushroom attaches to the stem. On a real morel the cap will be attached to the stem, not hanging free as with many other mushrooms.

     There is very little gear you need for mushroom hunting. In fact the only thing specific you need at all is a bag to carry your mushrooms in. The best type for mushroom hunting is a mesh bag. This will allow better airflow to your mushrooms, helping keep them fresher while you hunt. The mesh will also allow any spores that fall off the mushrooms to scatter out of the bag and onto the forest floor, hopefully to in time grow more mushrooms.  When gathering morels you will want to clip or pinch the morel at the base of the stem, rather than pulling to keep the mushroom clean.

     Once your morels are collected you can pan fry them, put them in soups, dry them and even freeze them.

     Remember though before eating a mushroom you always want to make sure you positively identify what it is that you are eating, so you don't accidentally eat something you shouldn't. It is best to have three sources of positive identification before you try and eat anything. Perhaps the best way to learn about mushroom hunting is to go with someone who knows what they are doing. Look for mushroom hunting clubs in your area!

3. Dandelions
     It is that weed that pops up everywhere. Big spiky leaves invade your lawn and bright yellow flowers pop up overnight. To most people dandelions are just weeds. A blight on their otherwise green lawns. However for me, dandelions are one of my favorite flowers.

     They are a incandescently happy yellow, and one of the best signs that spring is here. Even better, they're edible and you can't mistake something else for these happy flowers.

     All parts of dandelions are edible so go ahead an pull up the whole plant. For most people it is the leaves that people eat, whether it is in salads, steamed or cooked with something else. However dandelion roots can also be eaten raw, steamed or dried. They can even be roasted and ground into a substitute for coffee.

      As for dandelion flowers, they work great added to salads, made into jellies, or made into wine. So if you've ever thought about making a foray into wine making, just go pick some dandelions and get started!

Check out this easy simple dandelion salad made by Clara at Great Depression Cooking:


4. Garlic Mustard
     Talking about weeds, how can you not mention garlic mustard. An invasive species, garlic mustard is widespread and can be found along shade roadsides, paths and other shady areas. Garlic mustard first appears as a plant sitting low to the ground with heart shaped leaves, that taste and smell strongly of garlic. In its second year of growth garlic mustard will send up a stalk with leaves along the stalk and a white four petaled flower at the top.

     Because it is invasive there is no reason to feel bad about ripping out the whole plant, and because the whole plant is edible and there are no poisonous look-a-likes, you can take that whole plant home with you for cooking.

     Garlic mustard appears in spring and is around through fall, however it is best to pick in spring and early summer because the leaves will get better as the weather gets hot.

     Garlic mustard leaves can be used in salads and pestos. While the roots are spicy and can be used to make a horseradish like condiment.

Here are two simple and easy Garlic Mustard recipes:
Garlic Mustard Vinegar

1. Fill a jar with garlic mustard leaves.
2. Cover with organic raw apple cider vinegar.
3. Cap with plastic lid. If using a metal lid, protect lid from corrosion by placing wax paper under the lid.
4. Steep for 4 - 6 weeks (though you can use before then, taste and see.)
5. Pour off and save vinegar for use, compost leaves.

Raw Garlic Mustard Pesto

1 1/2 cups garlic mustard leaves
1 1/2 cups spinach leaves
juice of 1/2 - 1 lemon (to taste)
1 clove garlic (or more to taste)
1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
salt or tamari to taste

Blend above ingredients in food processor or blender and enjoy.

4. Dryad's Saddle
     I know it is another mushroom. Everyone tells you mushrooms are dangerous. Don't eat them because they can kill you and in most cases that is the truth. When it comes to wild mushrooms you should never eat them without knowing what it is, because one bite of the wrong mushroom could lead to a serious illness or even death!

     However, like morel mushrooms, Dryad's Saddle is an easy mushroom to identify, making it a good mushroom for those starting out.

     Dryad's Saddle is sometimes also known as a pheasantback mushroom because of the distinctive pattern that runs across the top of the mushroom, which looks like the feathers on the back of a pheasant. The mushroom itself is a cap that fans out of the dead hardwood that it is growing on, and they can grow to be quite large. On the underside of the mushroom there are small but visible pores.

     The mushroom will also have a pleasant smell similar to a watermelon rind. Dryad's saddle is most common in May and June however they can still be found throughout the summer. The best part about these mushrooms is that there are no poisonous look a likes.

     The key to these edible mushrooms are that you should eat smaller tender ones, or only the tender outer bits on larger examples. Your knife should be able to pass through the mushroom easily. When you are collecting these mushrooms, even though you will only be using the tender parts of the mushroom, you still want to cut off the whole mushroom cap, because this will promote growth and a new cap may grow back during the same season.

     Once you have collected these mushrooms you should cook them as quickly as possible. I myself have had them pan fried in a little bit of butter and I thought they were excellent. The key to cooking them, is to cook them quick and not to overcook Dryad's Saddle because it can become tough very quickly.

   You can also dehydrate these mushrooms in thin slices, or use them in a soup.

5. Violets
     All members of the viola family are edible, and that is why violets are such a great wild edible. The edible flowers have long been part of culinary traditions, used as garnishes, in teas, jellies, salads, and even candied.

     These hardy plants can be found in grassy areas, perhaps even your lawn. However they are also very easy to grow and can be a beautiful addition to any garden, especially an edible garden.

     With a mild to sweet flavor, violets are perfect for many dishes. When using violets for eating you want to use the flowers leaves, which can be used fresh or dried.

     However just like any other wild edible you want to make sure that what you are eating is actually what you think you are eating. With violets you will want to make sure the flower is actually part of the viola family. There are flowers, such as African Violets, that share the common name because of their color, but are not actually in the viola family.

Try out some violet recipes here:
Triple Violet Salad
Crystalized Viola
Violet Sugar
Violet Vinegar

6. Chickweed
     Chickweed is a hardy edible that grows in many areas in the country. With small white star shaped flowers, and oval shaped leaves with pointed tips, chickweed is realitivly easy to identify.

     Like many plants there are other plants that look similar. There are three easy identifiers though that seperate chickweed from other poisonious plants. The first is that it has a line of hairs on it stem which change side with each pair of leaves. The second thing isthat if you bend and rotate the stem and then pull gently the outer part of the stem will seperate. The inner part of the stem is elastic though and will not seperate. The third and easiest way to tell is the sap of the plant, which is not milky. If the plant you pick has a milky sap, don't eat it, because it is not chickweed.

     It is the oval leaves of the chickweed that is so important because it is the leaves which are the edible part of this plant. These leaves can be eaten raw on a salads or sandwiches. They can also be eaten in soups, stews or other cooked dishes. Chickweed can also be cooked by itself and tastes similar to spinach.

     The collection and eating of wild edibles is a great way to enjoy a warm spring day. Just remember when collecting edibles that you make sure to stick to the right guidelines when collecting plants, and never eat something that you are unsure of.

   So if you think wild edibles sound good for dinner, spend a few hours out the in the woods and discover the joys of all the food that can be growing right in you backyard.


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