The Case for Wild Foods

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden reminds us that there is such a thing as free (not to mention healthy) lunch, and it’s growing all around us.

 
Anybody who has spent any amount of time researching and reading about today’s food industry, will quickly conclude that the vast majority of “foods” on the market, particularly those marketed to babies and children, are bad for us.

Trying to be a responsible parent in today’s toxic environment, is one of the most challenging undertakings we face. For this reason, it is important to introduce our children to the concept of growing our own food. Just being in a garden and getting their hands in the soil can be of huge benefit to young minds. The connection to the natural world is vital to complete development.

Foraging in the garden

Most non-organic foods, even fresh vegetables, are likely to contain either toxic additives or residues that build up in the body. These ultimately contribute to chronic ailments, making it even more essential that we feed our children organically grown foods.

Of course, eating healthy can be pretty costly, but there are ways to reduce costs. For me, the answer has been wild foods. If you are a regular reader of The Dirt, you will have read about many of the seasonal edibles that I gather to help supplement my regular diet.

Our gardens and local natural areas are filled with free, nutritious and tasty ingredients, there for the gathering. All we need to do is learn to recognize them and learn to use them. Even if we pick the occasional leaf and eat it, it can help to supply us with nutrients that may be lacking in our diet.

Plantago major (common plantain)

So, take the time to get to know some of the wild foods that surround us (even in our city parks) and share the knowledge with your children. Or, better still, if they attend the Nature Place Day Camp, they can teach you.

A feast provided by nature

You Must’ve Heard – It’s Garlic Mustard!

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden tell us about the many culinary delights that Garlic Mustard can provide.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a very versatile food plant, which can be found at almost any time of the year, from mid-winter to the height of the summer. The flavor isn’t very strong during the winter and early spring months, but it still has a bite. The fall yields the strongest flavor.

The roots are a good substitute for horse radish. I cut them up and put them into a blender or a food processor along with some vinegar, water, salt and a little sugar. Then I puree them until I have a fairly smooth paste. The result can be used much the same as regular horse radish. It has a similar flavor, whilst being less spicy.

GM roots

In April and May, the plants bush up and begin flowering. This is the best time to harvest the leaves. The fresh young leaves can be eaten raw. They have the flavor of garlic with a mustard after taste. They make a spicy/garlicky addition to a mixed green salad. They are good boiled, sautéed, or added to a stir fry. I have a friend who dries the leaves, crumbles them up fine and sprinkles them as a condiment over his steaks.

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Lightly sautéed or steamed, the young pre-blossoming plants taste remarkably similar to Broccoli Rabe, but they are not as stringy.

The large basal leaves are ideal for making Garlic Mustard chips – crisp, melt-in-the-mouth snacks, that are always a big hit at parties. I brush the leaves lightly on both sides with oil, sprinkle them with sea salt, and put them on a tray in a 275o F oven for 4 or 5 minutes; then serve them fresh.

Garlic mustard Chips

The open flowers make a perfect garnish or salad ingredient. After the flowers die away, then come the seed pods. By the end of May, some of the green pods will turn brown and split to reveal their dark brown elongated seeds. June is mustard seeding month, where you can walk along the hedgerows gathering handfuls of seeds.

Garlic-mustard

Much like common mustard, the ground seeds of Garlic Mustard can be used as a spicy condiment, which can be sprinkled over food or made into a paste. You can also toast them like sesame seeds and sprinkle them over food.

G mustard seed

Foraging Field Garlic

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden tells us how to identify the best Field Garlic specimens and suggests how to prepare them.

Last year was a poor year for many species, owing to a late frost that killed a lot of blossoms. Even the plants that are normally hardy, and don’t flower until later in the year, seemed to have suffered. One of those, much to my disappointment, was Field Garlic (Allium vineale). However, this year is different. I have already seen some large healthy patches, that show promise of good harvests.

Field-garlic

A patch of Field Garlic

Field garlic, or “Onion Grass,” as it is more commonly known, is a favorite snack of kids all over the world. They love to chew on the deep green hollow stems that deliver a sweet, oniony flavor. A lot of folks use the scallion-like foliage in cooking. However, for me, the prime part of the Field Garlic plant is the bulb, which tastes like a milder, sweeter form of regular garlic.

Field Garlic plants either begin as tiny bulblets, which drop from the flower stalk, or from the underground bulbs sub-dividing. In either case, field garlic tends to grow in tight clusters, that give the appearance of a clump of grass. For about a year, the plants are too small to have worthwhile bulbs. It is only during the second year, when the stems begin to swell and grow tall, that there is a chance that the bulb has fattened up and is ready to harvest. Depending on the location, it could take a few years.

Field garlic bulbs

Field Garlic bulbs and stalks, ready to be incorporated into a recipe.

I use parts of the plant in all kinds of dishes. It is fun to use the bulbs whole, like pearl onions. In fact, there are so many ways to use them, that the only restriction is your imagination. My favorite way to prepare them, however, is pickled in a mild, sweet vinegar (my homemade red clover vinegar is ideal for the purpose and turns the bulbs pink).

Field-garlic-bulbs-in-bowl

Field Garlic bulbs

Quinoa cake on garlic greens

Quinoa cake over a lattice of Field garlic greens

Early Signs of Spring

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes how to spot one of nature’s first signs of spring (not an edible sign!)

Last Wednesday, we had almost spring-like weather (before the big blizzard hit and turned the world into Narnia). We knew the snow was coming and so took the opportunity to take a walk in the woods. Since it’s February, we were pretty sure that we’d find the early flowers of the skunk cabbage, popping up through the marshy ground. We weren’t disappointed.

It is a funny thing about skunk cabbage flowers: at first they are hard to spot, but then once you’ve found one, others begin to appear, until you see them coming up everywhere. Each bloom is unique, ranging in color from deep maroon to combinations of red, yellow, and green.

Skunk Cabbage 1

At the moment, the flowers are resting under the snow. However, these plants are thermogenic, and are capable of raising their temperatures considerably, melting the snow that surrounds them. They will soon be peeking out of the holes they make. At that point, they are really easy to spot.

Anyone coming across these strange, exotic creatures for the first time may wonder whether they landed here from another planet. However, after a few weeks, the flowers fade away and the bouquets of green cabbage-like leaves appear. Don’t be fooled by their luscious appearance. They are not edible.  Seconds after putting a piece of the plant into your mouth, it is like having a mouthful of hot needles. Rather, enjoy them for the beautiful things they are – a feast for the eyes and for the soul.

Skunk Cabbage 2

Natural Decorations

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and decorative in our area. 

When I was a kid we were very poor (living in post war London), so we had to create many of life’s necessities ourselves. When it came to toys and decorations, most of these were handmade. That was part of the fun of a holiday, sitting down together and making garlands and other decorative flourishes with colored paper and found objects.

I continued these habits into adulthood, and handmade objects d’art festooned our house during the holidays. I particularly got a kick out of going out into the fields and verges and gathering natural objects to use in decorations. They would be used in place of bows on our Christmas gifts and to decorate the tree.

wild-decorations

There are lot of interesting things to collect at this time of year, like conifer branches and cones, bittersweet vine with its red berries, phragmites fronds and numerous other berries, grasses, seed pods and dried flowers. With the addition of a bit of ribbon, some lace, and a glue gun (or wire), these can be turned into colorful, seasonal flourishes to add the finishing touch to a gift, a dinner table or a whole room.

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Similar things can be done with food, particularly baked goods. I once made a spinach tart, with an acorn crust, and decorated the top with an ornate design. Trouble was, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it, so I took it to a potluck dinner and let someone else do the honors.

ornamental-wild-greens-tart

Dandelion Jerky

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and edible in our area.

Dandelion root is very beneficial, as a food and a medicine, but it can be a bit of a challenge to sit down to a plate of raw roots, so I’ve experimented with different ways to make them palatable. A few years back I was chewing on a dried root and although it didn’t have a very pleasant flavor, it had a great texture, not unlike jerky. That got me working on different techniques for infusing the roots with flavor.

I started playing with the idea of dehydrating and reconstituting the roots in a sauce or marinade to give it flavor, then drying it out until it became chewy, like meat. After a lot of exploration into different sauces and drying methods, I finally arrived at the formula which I use today.

My secret for tasty and successful results begins with the roots. Choosing the right root can make a big difference in the final result. The old, gnarly roots are harder to clean, and can be really bitter. The younger roots are too skinny. The best roots are the long, wide tap roots on a plant that is about 2-3 years old.

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The reason you need long, straight roots is that they are easier to clean and can be cut into strips. Once I have them sliced, I put the strips into the dehydrator (an oven at low temperature would do) to dry them out.

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The next part requires making a sauce in which you can either simmer or marinate the dried root.  Simmering should be done on low heat for 15-20 minutes. Marinating takes several hours. So far, I’ve used teriyaki sauces, curried sauces and sweet and sour sauces. No matter what other ingredients you use it is important to add some oil. It helps to give the root a nice texture and finish.

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After the root has soaked up the flavor, I return it to the dehydrator (oven) and dry it until it is chewy.  Dandelion jerky makes a convenient and nutritious snack!

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Wild Plants with Paul

img_7711-copyWild food forager Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild in our area.

About 10 years ago, I spotted a plant that I had only previously seen in the marshes at Cape May. It was considered invasive and not desirable, yet it was such a beautiful and exotic plant. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t want it growing there. I’ve since learned exactly why.

Porcelain Berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata – quite the mouthful) was no doubt brought into this country from Asia as an ornamental plant, with little consideration for the ultimate consequences. I can understand people wanting to plant them, as the berries are quite spectacular, resembling speckled porcelain beads of green, turquoise, rich blue, purple, deep pink and white, with many tones in between.

A large cluster of berries may not have any two berries of the same color or shade. They are set against a background of dark green leaves. They can be truly exquisite. Even the leaves will often have a filigree beauty. However the vine can be very destructive.

Over time, I have watched the water’s edge of Tallman Park transformed by these relatives of wild grapes, that have now spread out into the Phragmites marshes and are advancing up the hillside into the park. The have completely overpowered trees much like Kudzu does in the South. If you find it growing in your yard. I’d suggest you dig it up before it spreads all over.

Porcelain berries are best used as a colorful garnish.

tree-sculpture

A creeping tower of porcelain berries

Foraging Wild Foods

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and edible in our area. 

I love this time of year. Everywhere we look, life is bursting forth. After the rains that visited us for a week at the beginning of the month we are having a spectacular spring. When I walk in the woods and fields, I feel as though I’m standing in a giant banquet hall, where all the food is fresh, tasty and free. I look around and I’m greeted by nature’s medicines, offering up their powers for our use. As different plants reach their peak, I gratefully gather some for our dinner table and for my herbal medicine cabinet.

After years of foraging I’ve come to know many plants like old friends, and I know just when and where to look for them. This familiarity comes from years of dragging myself through marshes, jungles, deserts, fields and woods, studying plants, making notes, taking pictures and writing about what I discover.

Hardly a day goes by at this time of year that I don’t either forage, prepare wild food dishes or make herbal remedies. Of course, mine is a rather anachronistic lifestyle in our high-tech age, but I am inextricably drawn to it. Besides, eating these nutrient-rich foods makes me feel good!

Milkweed shoot
Milkweed shoot

Field of ramps
Field of ramps

In the past few days I have been out gathering the shoots of knotweed, milkweed and other various trail-side plants. I harvested garlic mustard, stinging nettle, and ramps, with which I’ve made such dishes as forager’s spanakopita with an acorn crust or a wild greens quiche.

Wild greens spanakopita
Wild greens spanakopita

Nettle quiche
Nettle quiche

I’ll often slice my dishes into small pieces and take them to parties or gatherings, where they soon disappear. I now have all my neighbors hooked on my wild food dishes.

At the Nature Place Day Camp, campers love to go out and forage, prepare a wild foods dish from what we’ve collected, and then eat it! They usually keep coming back for more until the whole foraged dish we’ve just made is all gone.

Stinging Nettle

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden shows us what’s growing wild and edible in our area. Although we wrote about nettles in October, they’re coming up so abundantly at this time of year we had to share the wealth and tell you about them again!

My daughter Kelly and I decided to make some calzones, using the sourdough that I had made the previous day. We wanted to make some stuffed with cheese and spinach, but as we didn’t have any spinach, we used the stinging nettle I had recently harvested at a local farm. We simmered the greens until they had the texture of cooked spinach, and this made a perfect filling.

nettle calzone

nettle calzone

Of course, there is far more to stinging nettle than being a substitute for spinach. To begin with, nettles are rich in vitamins A, C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. What’s more, they possess up to 40% protein. Of course, these nutritional facts are not foremost in our minds when we are enjoying a bowl of nettle soup or a dish of nettle greens. We are too busy experiencing their delicious taste and texture.

sauteed nettles with apples

sauteed nettles with apples

For those of you who enjoy making and consuming smoothies, you’ll find no better ingredient to add, both in terms of health and flavor.

As well as being highly nutritious, stinging nettle has potent medicinal qualities. I have often recommended nettles to friends who suffer from seasonal allergies. Those who take my advice to consume two cups of nettle tea a day (steeped for at least three hours) have experienced amazing relief, particularly when the tea is sweetened with raw, unfiltered, local honey. This tea is also wonderful for the treatment of anemia, and as a purifying tonic, helping to remove impurities from the blood.

Stinging nettle is also a regular part of the teas I brew to help with flu or cold. It is particularly good for lung issues and coughing. As a sufferer of arthritis, I will often sting the offending areas with nettles. While this can be a bit painful, it is very effective for stimulating blood flow to the area and greatly reduces the arthritic flareup.

I could fill several pages discussing the benefits of this amazing plant. If you would like regular access to nettles, I recommend starting your own patch, as it is easy to transplant from a piece of root. If you don’t have space or the wherewithal to start your own nettle patch, don’t worry, nettles grow wild almost everywhere! Viewed as a weed, they can be yours for the taking, and are of a particular tenderness this time of year as they’re beginning to grow. Just be sure to use gloves when harvesting, as using your bare hands would become quite painful (unless you’re attempting to stimulate your arthritic joints). Steeping nettles in boiling water for just a few minutes will help remove the painful stinging aspect so that you can safely enjoy their taste and nutritional value.

stinging nettle growing in the wild

stinging nettle growing in the wild

Wild Edible Walk & Open House

Join The Nature Place this Sunday, April 17th, from Noon – 1 pm, as we’re led through the ripening woods on a wild edible walk, guided by wild food forager Paul Tappenden. We’ll learn to identify a variety of edible spring plants growing wild throughout our Nature Place campus, in what’s predicted to be perfect, 70 degree spring weather.

Stick around afterward for our open house to learn more about camp! Our open house runs between 1 and 4 pm. If you’re unable to attend the wild edibles program before hand you can just stop by anytime between 1 and 4 pm to take a tour of camp, see a slideshow from summers past, and get your camp questions answered.

Our Wild Edible Walk and open house will both meet at 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977.

Paul Tappenden holding up a burdock leaf

Paul Tappenden holding up a burdock leaf