Wild foods are gaining a foothold, both in people’s imaginations and their refrigerators. Foraging was named among the hottest trends of the year by several food buzz lists. This is, in part, thanks to foraging advocate Chef René Redzepi who is so enthralled with wild foods that he picks wild herbs on his morning runs. But there is also an upsurge of interest from hobbyists and wild food enthusiasts, all of whom are delighted to embrace the diverse flavors of deeply local wild foods.
In light of the recession, highly nutritious foraged foods can help ease the strain on pocketbooks. So many of the plants that are considered weeds are edible. At best, they are disregarded. At worst, they are considered pests. Foraging is the plant version of up-cycling, utilizing something that most would consider garbage to fill hungry bellies.
Aside from the economic advantages, foraging is also old-fashioned fun, and it can provide epicurean delights throughout the year. Below are some tips to help you incorporate foraging into your everyday life.
1. Make informed decisions. This ensures a safe foraging experience. Never ever eat something that you can’t identify with 100 percent certainty. Consult and cross-reference at least three sources when identifying a new plant. When in doubt, throw it out!
2. Use a specific local guide. Find a guide that explores plants native to your region. The best guidebooks include multiple pictures or drawings of each plant, including what the plant looks like at different stages of growth, and a close-up of its leaf pattern.
3. Know the laws in your area. Laws vary tremendously from region to region, and even from city to city. Often, the best option is to find private property, and obtain permission to harvest there.
4. Respect the environment. Beyond the written law, obey the greater law to always honor the habitat where you are picking, and the other creatures that live there. Never make a place less beautiful. When you leave, it shouldn’t be apparent that you’ve been there. Never take more than you can use.
5. Use proper equipment. The bare basics are an inexpensive pair of scissors, some bags and a guide book. Intermediate-level foraging might require gloves for harvesting crops like little nettles, and a specialized digging tool called a hori-hori for digging roots like dandelion and burdock. Wear sturdy footwear and protective pants if you region is home to rattlesnakes or poison ivy or poison oak. Use sun protection and take along water.
6. Stick with what is abundant. Go for a walk or bike ride near your home and study the land. Which plants seem to be growing everywhere? Those are the first plants to learn to identify. If it turns out they are edible, you can enjoy them often without worry of damaging the population. Talk about eating locally!
7. Don’t get overwhelmed. This is probably the most important piece of advice outside of the safety basics. Instead of trying to digest too much information at once, set a goal to learn just one plant per week or month. Get to know it well. Learn what it looks like in all stages of growth. Get so that you can spot it by pattern recognition. Learn how it tastes and how to cook with it.
8. Start with a small sample. The first time you eat a new food, only eat a few bites. Even if a food is considered safe, you never know how your body may react to it. Always keep a sample of what you have ingested in the refrigerator. If you become ill, you will have this sample to show what caused the problem. This is a common practice among mushroomers, but is a good idea, in general, when eating any foraged foods.
9. Learn how to substitute wild foods for other ingredients in your usual recipes. This is the key to incorporating wild foods into your daily menus. Say you’ve harvested wild leafy greens, like nettles. Nettles cook up similarly to kale or spinach. Does your family love spinach lasagna? Substitute nettle for the spinach in the recipe, or even just half. Do you enjoy whipping up a kale and potato frittata after work? This is the perfect place to try using nettles.
10. Consider preserving. One of the best ways to incorporate foraged foods into your everyday life is to preserve small batches of them throughout the growing season. Dry some of your wild herbs for cooking and for tea. Play around with making a few new kinds of pickles. Freeze several batches of blanched greens to enjoy throughout the winter. Can fruits either whole or as jam.
If you follow these tips, you can have a safe and enjoyable foraging experience. Start with foods that are already familiar and easy to identify, like dandelion and feral apples. Adding just a few wild ingredients to your pantry can be adventurous and interesting, as well as make a big impact on your budget.
Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.
Photo: Some basic foraging tools. Credit: Wendy Petty