Local Food Sound Food Blog

Finding Food in the Forest

Are you starved for something fresh and green to eat?  If your vegetable garden still resembles arctic tundra, the best way to satisfy your craving might be to go for a walk in the woods.

Local author and wild food expert Langdon Cook recently taught a couple of classes in foraging for spring edibles. In addition to the familiar nettles and berries, students also learned about more exotic fare such as Devil's Club buds and Lady Fern Fiddleheads.

The first class was on Bainbridge Island, and focused specifically on the Stinging Nettle. Cook first made sure his intrepid students were well-armed with sturdy gloves and kitchen shears, and then led them into the Gazzam Lake wilderness in search of the "belligerent weed." The group warily snipped the top two sets of tender young leaves from each nettle plant, and quickly filled their bags. Then it was back to the kitchen to transform their venomous harvest into a harmless, and delicious, nettle soup. Cook said that nettles also make a great pesto.

Later that week he led another group into the Cascade Foothills near Tiger Mountain, in search of a variety of early-season wild edibles. Even though there was still frost on the ground, he was able to find plenty to eat. Students thoughtfully munched on leafy samples as they learned about the habitat and culinary uses of each.

First up was wild wood sorrel, also known as oxalis. It looks like a leprechaun's dream of a big lime-green shamrock, and grows prolifically wherever it gets started. It has a pleasing lemony taste that is a perfect complement to fish, or a sprightly accent to a spring salad. Cook offers a recipe for salmon with sorrel sauce that is the perfect way to try this common wild treat.

Next we sampled some bright pink blossoms of salmonberry. They were pleasingly sweet, and would make a nice color note in a salad or as a garnish to a spring plate.

Mother Nature likes to protect the best edibles with spines or stings. Beside nettles, another ferocious food is the Devil's Club, the official name of which ends in "Horridus." The tender young buds of this gigantic spiny plant are delicious when sautéed in butter, according to Cook. He suggests harvesting them when the tender buds just break out of their sheaf and are 1" to 2" long. Be very, very careful as you snap the buds off - the spines are very, very nasty. Here's more information on gathering and cooking this rare treat.

Fern Fiddleheads are another spring specialty. There's only one variety of fern that offers up edible fiddleheads in our part of the country, the Lady Fern. Sword and Deer Ferns are not fit for the table. Lady Ferns are small and delicate, and according to Cook the foliage usually disappears during the winter. The trick is to find where Lady Ferns grow by looking for their foliage during the summer when they're in leaf. Then go back to that spot to find the tender furled shoots early in the spring.

At the end of the walk, he pointed out the dainty leaves of Siberian Miner's Lettuce. These were the biggest hit of the day; their herby, bright flavor perfectly captured the taste of spring.

Cook promises to continue his series of foraging classes into the berry days of summer and the fungi days of fall. For more information, keep tabs on the classes offered by the Bainbridge Parks Department as well as Cook's own Fat of the Land blog, where you'll also find a wealth of foraging information and recipes. Cook's book on foraging, Fat of the Land, is available in hardback and paperback.

I'm on my way across the road now to harvest nettles for a dinnertime pasta dish with Mystery Bay Farm's lemon ricotta and spot prawns. As always, I'll admire nature's original permaculture, and be thankful for all of the good food to be found in the woods.

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