On a springtime drive through the country you might spot occasional clusters of people slyly slinking off into the wilderness. You might think they are going for a hike, but they may, in fact, be going out to hunt for dinner.
These eccentric types have discovered that the best place to eat isn’t necessarily a new, chic, downtown restaurant — they’ve learned that they can eat in their own (or a neighbor’s) backyard.
One hardy friend begins stalking the woods around his Sutton’s Bay “off-the-grid” home after the snow melts. He keeps an eye on the weather. When the conditions are right, he journeys off to snack on the young, tightly curled bracken or fiddlehead ferns, wild asparagus, wild Jerusalem artichokes and young, sweet cattails. My friend especially loves the peppery zing of fresh watercress from the banks of a clean, fast-moving stream.
Many of us harvest leeks and morels. In a wet year morels seem to grow everywhere, but in a dry spring we all must work harder to find them. Morels should never be eaten raw. They contain a poison that is deactivated by cooking. Thread part of your bounty of morels on string and hang them in a warm, dry, well-ventilated spot until all their moisture is gone. Drying intensifies the mystical flavor of morels, which adds a deeper dimension to sauces, soups and stews.
You might use forest leeks (ramps), as you would garlic, in sauces and stir-fries. Chop your excess and dry them in a food dehydrator. Slide them into dishes throughout summer and winter. Buzz dried leeks (or dried morels) in a spice grinder for a quick and sassy sprinkle in scrambled eggs or soup.
Kristin Hurlin, an artist-illustrator, (you might know her meticulous paintings of Leelanau county landscapes) goes out daily to draw the plant life around her Glen Arbor home and gallery. She says, “I nibble all day long on a few cedar needles, plantain leaves, purslane, violet flowers or tender, young dandelion leaves. These wild foods are full of vitamins and minerals. I nibble to satiate myself while I hike and draw.”
Hurlin knows what many wild foragers have discovered; wild foods are packed with flavor and nutrients. “Wildman” Steve Brill in “The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook” says, “Because wild plants have to cope with herbivores, competing plants, weather, and changing climate to survive, they’ve evolved extraordinary fitness.”
This makes wild foods the perfect spring tonic. Robert A. Barnett, author of “Tonics” says, “A tonic is something—a food, an herb, a thought—that improves your well-being. It helps restore balance to the body. It nourishes.” Wild foods provide this and more: a much-needed connection with the seasons the world around us.
Hurlin counsels first-time foragers never to deplete a patch, especially of the beloved morel. She suggests leaving minimally one-third of any clump of wild foods such as leeks or mushrooms and harvesting two-thirds. “You could pick old, leggy morels and hang them in the trees to spread the spores for next year.”
The woods can provide you with the beginnings of wild feast. Before you start, purchase a field guide. Identification, especially for mushrooms, is most important. Always harvest as far from a road and sprayed fields or lawns as possible. Wash your bounty. Eat small amounts of intense forest foods. What you tolerated one year might make you ill the next. Join a tour or make friends with experienced foragers. They can lead you to a wild, wetland cranberry bog, wild concord grapes, a secret patch of nettles, a field of rosehips or even show you where to dig thumbnail wild potatoes.
Because wild foods hold more flavor than their tame, cultivated cousins they need less fussing. Follow Hurlin’s wise advice for a successful meal. “I’m a simple cook and I prepare these foods simply.”
Morels, as any forager will tell you, need only to be cleaned and then sautéed in extra virgin olive oil or butter. The sharp power of sautéed forest leeks adds zing to soup, stews and sauces. Steam fiddlehead ferns, wild watercress or asparagus for two minutes and dress them with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix fiddlehead ferns, violet flowers, purslane or young dandelion leaves together with baby greens and you’ll have a fit beginning to your next uncivilized meal.
Wild Forest Leek and Cabbage Soup
— Adapted from Anne Bianchi
Yields 4 to 6 servings
6 T. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 small head Savoy cabbage, leaves removed, stemmed and diced
1 qt. chicken broth
1 C. wild leeks, cleaned and chopped (with some of the tender green)
4 to 6 slices (1/2-inch thick) good Italian bread like Stonehouse ciabatta
1 large garlic clove, smashed
Chopped flat leaf parsley
Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large soup pot. Stir in onion and sweat until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in cabbage and sprinkle with salt. Increase heat to medium, cover and cook until cabbage is tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 to 6 minutes. For in chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer soup uncovered 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a small skillet and add remaining two tablespoons olive oil. Sweat leeks (cook on low heat) until tender. Set aside. Toast bread under broiler or in a toaster oven. Rub with garlic and place each piece of bread in a soup bowl. When soup is done, stir in wild leeks and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup over the bread and serve.
Nancy Allen’s Sushi Pickled Forest Leeks
2 to 2-1/2 pounds forest leeks
1-1/2 tablespoons Kosher salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 cups rice vinegar
1/2 cup cold water
Clean leeks very well. Trim root hairs but don’t cut them off completely or the leek will fall apart. Trim off greens one half to one-inch above where the white/pink part of the stem ends. Bring a pot of water to boil and plunge leeks into it for 20 to 30 seconds. Drain. Toss them with the salt in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate the salted leeks 24 hours, turning once.
Drain leaks. Discard the liquid. Stuff leeks into clean canning jars. In a small saucepan, mix sugar, vinegar and water together. Bring to a boil and pour over the leeks.
Screw lid on the jar and allow jar to cool. Refrigerate leeks for several days before using. They will turn a lovely shade of pink. Pickled leeks are best refrigerated and used within one year. Serve them in sushi-maki, with grilled meat as a condiment or as an hors d’oeurve with pate or a decadent gorgonzola.
Breakfast Stuffed Morels
— This recipe was inspired when my husband and I discovered a bounty of very large morels.
12 to 16 large fresh morels
6 large eggs
1 to 1-1/2 T. forest leeks, white and tender green only
2 T. chopped flat leaf parsley
Toast for oven
Mushrooms don’t like water but if yours are sandy or if vermin have made a home in them, soak them for a few minutes in cold salted water and then drain on paper towels. Never wash morels until you are ready to cook them.
Slice morels in half lengthwise. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet or nonstick pan. Cook morels (in batches if necessary) until tender. Season with salt and pepper and remove from pan. Divide morel halves (inside facing up as a cup) between four serving plates.
Heat skillet again and add more butter. Cook leeks until tender and stir in parsley. Whisk eggs with 1 tablespoon water; season with salt. Pour eggs into skillet with leeks and parsley and cook over low heat until they are cooked through but still soft and tender. Divide scrambled eggs into the cooked morel halves. Serve immediately with toast.