Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why Eat Wild Foods?

With all the bounty available at the grocery store the question arises, why forage for wild foods?

1) They are organic.  No telling what has happened to the foods at the store.  Pesticides, fertilizers, preservatives, GMOs, several days, and thousands of miles just to get to your table.

2) They are local.  Obviously, no fossil fuels were used for their transport to your table.  Some are so local, they are right in your yard.

3) This is the best part... They are free.  Not only do they not cost money, but you don't even have to grow them.  No work except the gathering and preparing.

4) Many of them are healthier for us than modern cultivated greens.  A recent study pointed out the fact that wild herbs have compounds that fight cancer which have been bred out of cultivated greens.  The bitter herbs like dandelion have more of these.

5) It is fun going out and learning what is there in our surroundings.  It brings us closer to nature, gets us off our couch in front of the TV, and puts us out in the woods, fields, or even just in our own back yard, really looking at what is there, and being part of it.  It connects us to our environment.  And that is what we have lost in our modern world.  We don't feel connected with the natural world.

6) They are part of God's bounty provided free for us, and we shouldn't turn our noses up at them.   Everything in the world is given to us, and has a legitimate use.  It is up to us to figure out what the proper use is.  For some things, the only use is to just appreciate the beauty.  But in the fields and woods surrounding us here in the midwest, for an unbelievable number of the plants, one of the proper uses is to eat them.  They aren't just weeds, they are a valuable part of God's Creation, given to us.

Radish Greens

OK.  So this isn't wild food, but it certainly is overlooked.  Did you ever wonder why sometimes radishes are sold with the greens still on?  It is because they are really good to eat.


I have asked around, and very few folks seem to know this, or have even heard it.  Radish greens don't taste anything like the root.  They are mild, and good.  Prepare them any way you would spinach.  Boil them, and eat as a side dish, throw them in soups or stews, make a quiche, etc.  They are as versatile as spinach.  You can even eat them raw as part of a salad.  And I bet if you try them, you will like them.

The ones pictured above are from our crop this year which wasn't worth anything for radishes.  With the weird year, they didn't even develop a root, just went straight to flowering for seed.  So I pulled them all up, but of course it wasn't a total loss, because that pile of greens made a really nice Fritata.  See the Fritata post for the recipe.  

It is surprising how I get laughed at when I talk about eating this sort of stuff.  I believe in our modern society, we have forgotten just how much is out there that is not only edible, but really good and healthy!  We are so used to just buying food at the grocery store that we we have lost part of our heritage.  This is ancient knowledge, and still good today.  Not only that, these overlooked foods are part of God's bountiful provision for us.   

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Some Simple Rules for Foraging Wild Edibles

1) Ask the landowner.  Without permission, harvesting is stealing.  In most cases, the owner will be thrilled that someone wants to eat their weeds.  In other cases, such as the big city cemetery I frequent, it is public property, and permission isn't necessary.  If it is, it'll be a good chance to meet someone that could be very interesting, and/ or interested in what you are doing, and you'll have a new friend.

2) Know what you are after.  Go out with specific targets in mind.  Positive ID, enough said.

3) Don't harvest where any spraying has been going on.  I live in Iowa, and anywhere close to a farmed field, I wouldn't dare harvest.  The weeds may look good, but so many chemicals are used now that some drift can't be helped.  Even in your own yard, if your neighbor uses a lot of chemicals, be careful. The idea here is to get some healthy food, so err on the side of caution.

4) Don't harvest along roadsides.  There are a lot of toxins in automobile exhaust, and some is bound to get absorbed by the plants beside the road.  If it is a seldom traveled rural road, then it is probably OK, but along any city street or highway, forget it.

5) Keep your eyes open.  While you are gathering what you are after, notice what else is there.  Probably some more interesting edibles.  If you can remember what they look like, or take a picture, possibly you can identify them later.  It is fun!  And that is half the point of these expeditions, fun.

Poke

Poke Weed is probably the most famous of the edible wild greens.  Most folks have heard of it, but few know what it looks like, or how good it is!  For 7 years I lived in the rural Southern Missouri Ozarks.  Many folks there knew poke, and used it.  Some even had it planted at the back of their garden where they had a reliable crop every year.  I have even seen it in cans in the grocery store.  But where we live now in the upper midwest, very few people know about Poke even though it grows here just as well.  Once you get a taste for Poke, nothing else will quite do.  It'll have you looking forward to spring, and eyeing the places you know it grows.




Poke Weed in a perennial with a huge root.  Once established, the only way to get rid of it is dig out that great big root.  It grows in waste places, especially where the ground has bee disturbed.  Left to itself, there can be a pretty good patch in just a few years.  The greens are edible in the spring.  Harvest the tender tops, and boil them for a few minutes, then change the water, and do it again.  Early in the spring, probably two changes of water is sufficient.  Even later in the season the very young tops and leaves are still edible, but even with several changes of water, may be kind of strong.  I have been told tannic acid is the problem.  

For positive ID, if you aren't sure about a patch of something you think is Poke, just wait, and watch it. It will get three to four feet high, and have purple berries in the fall which stain everything.  If so, then you'll know where your patch is next year.  I'll take some photos of it later in the year, and add to this post.


The best way to cook Poke is the old hillbilly way.  After boiling it through two or three changes of water, transfer it to a skillet and fry it a couple minutes in bacon grease.  Then add some eggs, and scramble.  We got greedy, and ate half the batch here before I thought to take a photo.  The date was 5/29, and this Poke was very mild, and good.  You can spice it however you like, I prefer just salt, and pepper.  If you wanted to go to the trouble of canning or freezing some Poke, it would make a very nice mid winter treat.  Really good!


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Books

Information on gathering wild foods is pretty scattered.  You wind up getting a little here, and a little there.  The internet is somewhat helpful, but the three best books we have found are these.  All should be available, if not still in print, then used.

The first and still the best book on wild foods is Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus first published in 1962.  Gibbons' style is folksy and fun, it is really fun to read.  And just loaded with good information.  Every home that desires to eat healthy and green should have one.  The only problem I have with it is the illustrations.  They are not photographs, but hand drawn art, and not in color, so positive ID can be a problem if the plant in question is one I am not already familiar with.


The Macmillan Treasury of Herbs by Ann Bonar is from England, but really useful.  Not just describing edibles, it also has medicinal herbs, some recipes, cultivation tips, all the various uses of the herb in question, and all arranged alphabetically.  Positive ID is easy, the photos are clear.  Most of these plants grow here anyway.


The Randon House Book of Herbs by Roger Phillips and Nicky Foy is another really useful reference. The plants are arranged in it by use.  There is a major section on culinary herbs, salad herbs, vegetables, and a huge section on medicinal herbs.  Many like Dandelion appear in 2 or more sections, and everything is well and thoroughly described.  Great book!  

Wild Violets

Look down in your yard.  If you haven't sprayed, I bet you will see Wild Violets.   When I went to take a photo today, there weren't any with the beautiful blossom.  Most are violet colored, but they come in many different colors.  The greens are edible both as salad greens, and as cooked greens.  The flower is delicious, and adds a wonderful bit of color to your salad.  The leaves have some substance to them.  The leaves and blossoms are such a treat in the spring, as they are among the first fresh greens you get from your yard.  So good!

Wild Food Fritata


A Fritata is one of those really versatile, one pot, easy and fast dishes, and sort of like a crustless quiche.  You don't have to use wild greens in it, you can put in almost anything you can think of.  Chard is particularly nice, but the one you see here was really good with mostly Stinging Nettle leaves, a little Garlic Mustard, and some Wild Violet leaves.  I gathered most of the greens in a few minutes in our back yard.  

So; preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  While it is preheating, put an iron skillet, or whatever you have on the stove and sautee whatever you want to use for flavoring.  This one had chopped green onions from the garden, chopped mushrooms, and salt, pepper, basil, and thyme all in butter.  When the veggies or whatever are slightly cooked, add the greens, cover, and cook until the greens are well wilted.   Meanwhile, scramble some eggs, there were 7 in this dish.  Also, grate some cheese.  When the greens are well wilted, mix in the eggs, and sprinkle the grated cheese on the top.  Bake in the oven a few minutes until done, it won't take long since the skillet was already hot.

The Nettles were delicious in this recipe!  They are very mild, and you could mistake them for spinach when paired with all the other ingredients.  Healthy and organic!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Garlic Mustard

There are a bunch of good salad greens out there, and Garlic Mustard is very common and good.  It is a biennial that grows low to the ground the first year, and tall with a small white flower the second.  The leaves are edible both years, and have a mild flavor with just a hint of garlic.  The stems are sometimes bitter, but you can remove them if it bothers you.  You can harvest enough in just a few minutes for an ingredient to a wonderful wild salad.  This is the second year Garlic Mustard growing among the Day lily at the edge of the cemetery near our house.



This is the first year Garlic Mustard in both the photos below.


As always, be careful there you harvest that no pesticides have been sprayed.

Stinging Nettle

This is one I have known about for years, but hesitated to try.   But finally this year, I screwed up my courage and got a bunch to cook.  Wish I had done this years ago, it is going to be one of my favorite wild greens.

Stinging Nettle is a very common weed, you'll recognize it right away.  It is a perennial, growing in waste places, at the edge of fields, and even in some brave people's gardens.  It is very nutritious, high in vitamin C, and Iron.  It is a good substitute for spinach in any recipe that uses cooked spinach, and tastes much like spinach, but you don't have to buy it or grow it.  Once you know what it looks like, you'll see it everywhere, it is really common.



For positive ID, if you have ever walked through a patch of this bare legged, you KNOW what it looks like.  The small hairs up and down the stalks and under the leaves have Formic Acid in them which is what stings when injected into your skin.  But a simple pair of jeans, and gloves to do the harvesting will prevent this.  Cooking disables the formic acid.  Harvest the leaves, and tender tops not very far down the stalk which is woody.  It doesn't take very long to get enough for a good meal.  The old cemetery near our house is surrounded with acres of Nettles in amongst the Day Lily which by the way are also edible.  More on them later.  Nettles are available, and edible until they bloom.

You can serve the Nettles any of many different ways.  Just as a cooked green, maybe with a little vinegar or hot sauce.

Or you can make a soup.  Sautee the Nettle in butter until wilted, then add milk, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes.  A little onion and/ or garlic would be a nice addition.  Then puree in a blender, and serve warm.

Or you can make a Nettle Fritata which is kind of a crustless quiche.  Fritata is an all purpose dish that you can put anything in, and I am going to try a Nettle Fritata in the next few days.  I'll post a photo and recipe when I make it.

It is amazing the bounty that is out there free for us all when we just look around!  As always, be careful of where you harvest your wild food.  Many people use pesticides, and it may not be obvious.  Also, roadsides are not appropriate.  Cities, counties, and states also spray, and automobile fumes carry many chemicals which are absorbed by the roadside plants.  I know our own yard is safe, and also the big old cemetery nearby where they only mow.

Black Locust Blossoms

I got this idea from Euell Gibbons' Stalking The Wild Asparagus, the original Bible for the wild food devotee.  Black Locust is a wild tree that is abundant in the Midwest.  It is kind of a weed tree, you don't want it in your yard, it gets very tall very quick, and is brittle, so susceptible to blowing down in a high wind.  But in the spring, they are covered in these fragrant blossoms that are delicious!




It only took me a few minutes to gather this pile of blossoms at the cemetery near our house.  Just dip the blossoms in a thin batter, and fry them.  This would be good with many different toppings.  It was good with ketchup, with sour cream, and with cinnamon and sugar.  It would be good as a side dish, a light main dish, or sweetened a little with the cinnamon and sugar or honey as a dessert.  This is excellent food!  And it is free.