"I don't know why she chooses me but she does...
and I follow blindly not knowing where I will end up
and just trust that I am safe in the world
and all that surrounds me is good." bd
I have had a fascination with herbs and wild plants that goes back to the 60’s. A modern pioneer of early 21’st century foragers was an interesting fellow named Euell Gibbons. Many thought he was just a nuts, weeds and twigs kind of guy and others wanted to learn how to survive in Central Park on nothing but foraged foods.
Perhaps the most famous of his published books was Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Good Life. I read at least three of his books cover-to-cover and wondered how these wild foods would taste. He was known to have wild food parties where folks would bring their foraged foods and prepare them in delicious ways. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
Eating from the wild makes you aware of the diversity offered by the earth. What is lost in cultivated foods is found in the wild with great abandon. Organisms must struggle to survive this earth and in so doing they build strength to endure hardship. That is what is found in wild foods such as the lowly dandelions, chickweed, violets, sheep sorrel, and lamb’s quarters I would find in any of your gardens right this minute. This stuff takes you out of your comfort zone and that makes you stronger and amongst the fittest that survive this earth.
Last weekend I got my chance to revisit this wild food curiosity out in the mountains of West Virginia. Kristen Dorsey of Divine Journeys planned a Wild Foods Retreat out in Harper’s Ferry, WV at the FLOC center center. We had the option to tent or stay in the rustic lodge. To add an alluring nuance to the weekend Chef Miriam Conroy was there to create gourmet meals on Saturday and also Sunday brunch all we could forage. Lorrie Schoettler of Swallowtail Consulting handled the event logistics and also contributed beautiful organic grown vegetables from her own garden for Saturday night’s meal.
Kristen Dorsey led us on a hike through many habitats from deciduous upland forests to fields and riparian and wetland areas teaching us all along the trail. We had a book on edible plants that we used as our reference guide.
We took a 4 mile hike from the lodge down to the Shenandoah River and back. Kristen and her friend Annie Delaterre identified plants for us. We sampled and photographed plants like rattlesnake weed and learned it is NOT edible, but a pretty plant to find. It has medicinal uses. Blueberries were all over the higher elevations and were just past bloom and beginning to set their tiny fruits. Our trails took us from upper elevation habitats of oak & hickory forests down to a riparian and wetland areas. After lunch at a beautiful waterfall we continued down to the river to begin our collection of wild plants for the second half of the trip. Those with leather gloves collected stinging nettles. These are edible and of the highest value nutritionally. I had no idea! The plan was to use them for a pesto for Sunday brunch.
Some rules for the new forager are to positively identify the plant, collect with permission from property owners, collect with respect for the plant and the environment, avoid foraging where chemicals have been used, and protect yourself along the way. Never harvest a plant that you cannot positively identify and know how to prepare. Learn from others who are experienced first.
You are encouraged to have a curious mind and forage a small bit of wild greens to be added to your next salad. Make a mild and simple vinaigrette of lemon juice and olive oil with salt and pepper and fresh herbs if you have them. Be sure to clean your greens well. A salad spinner is a nice thing to have when working with greens.
My entree from the buffet starting at the top and going clockwise: sauteed softshell crabs topped with sauteed garlic mustard and wild onion, roasted root vegetables with beets, sweet potato, and burdock root, nettle-dandelion marinated chicken breast, amaranth grain, lambs quarter ravioli and linguini with fresh tomato (from the first night).
Chef Miriam Conroy poses for the papparazzi after teaching the group how to prepare a wild greens & mushroom omelet for Sunday's brunch. We dined on wild greens quiche, soft poached eggs atop toasted english muffins topped with nettle pesto and a berry compote. We drank a variety of herbal teas and homemade herbal cordials all make by Kristen throughout our weekend.
After such an inspiring weekend, I took to the trails on Monday and came back with two bags of foraged greens that included cleavers, garlic mustard, sheep sorrel, and stinging nettles (picked carefully with gloves, of course). Kristen posted a few recipes on our new FB group page called Wild Food Forager. Send me a note if you wish to join this lively closed group. I have made a wild greens saute, added wild greens to our morning green juices, Kristen's now famous wild greens quiche and a creation I made last night that turned out so delicious I had to share it here with you:
Wilted Spinach and wild greens with hot bacon sweet & sour dressing
2 large bunches of organic spinach, cleaned and torn into bite size pieces
2 handfuls of wild greens, cleaned and chopped into bite size pieces (garlic mustard, lambs quarters, nettles..)
3 slices smoked thick bacon, chopped (may omit bacon if you do not eat meat and use more canola oil)
2 Tablespoons canola oil
3 green onions chopped (may also substitute 4-5 wild onions, white parts only)
1 celery stalk, chopped small
2 Tablespoons turbinado sugar (honey might work well here too)
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
sea salt & pepper
4 dates, pitted and soaked in a tablespoon or 2 of cordial or liquor of your choice (brandy, rum, herbal liquors, etc), chopped
These wild greens include garlic mustard leaves, nettles, and cleavers. Wash your wild greens well to get any debris off of them. Cut them into bite sized pieces and spin dry in a salad spinner. Do the same with the spinach. I cut the large leaves into bite size pieces.
1. Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp. Set aside and drain on paper towel. Leave bacon drippings in pan. Add 1 ½ Tablespoons canola oil to pan.
2.Close to serving time, heat skillet with the oil and bacon drippings over medium heat. Add onions & celery and let sauté for 4-5 minutes. Add the wild greens and stir for another minute or so. Add sugar and vinegar and stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture reduces by a third. Add spinach and dates and their liquid. Toss continually until the greens reduce in size but are still holding their shape. Divide onto 2 plates and top with crisped bacon.
You do not need to cook the greens very long. Remember this is a salad and not a cooked green. I added the wild greens a little earlier than the spinach since the mix had cleavers in it and may have needed a bit more time so they are tender.
Notes: Bitter greens such as many wild greens benefit by the addition of something sweet (hence the soaked dates) . Other complementary flavors for greens include vinegar and even hot sauce in some preparations. These flavors are used to balance the bitter. From ayurvedic thinking the 6 tastes found in your meal will be balanced when all are present: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent.
So, get your feet wet and go out and pick some wild plants in your own yard. Add them to a salad or veggie sauté and give them a try. The Peterson guides have a book in their series called Edible Wild Plants. This book can be a tool to help you identify the plants you can eat that are free for the taking.
How lo--cal can YOU go? (Local, that is...)
Enjoy wild plants.
Respect all that you take.
Share with others and make new friends.