A Taste of Wild Things: Foraging for the First Foods of Spring

Have you ever looked at a wild plant and wondered if it was edible? It’s amazing that even if you live in the heart of the city, there is food growing all around you. The wonderful part is, even if you don’t feel confident picking morel mushrooms or burdock yourself, the farmers’ markets and local health food stores can supply you with an exotic selection of local edibles.

Our lust for wild foods was well described in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau in his book, Walden, or Life in The Woods, where he wrote: “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious. We can never have enough of Nature. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely.”

No one understands this better than Steven Martyn, the founder of Little Black Bear Earth Wisdom Centre, and co-founder (with Kim Elkington) of The Algonquin Tea Company. He teaches wilderness courses which help urban folks understand that a huge amount of the forest is edible. He has been living off the land since 1984 and sees almost every plant as a possible meal. He says “when spring strikes, we are like bears coming out of hibernation.” Martyn once watched a bear devour an entire juniper bush in one sitting. But that’s not to say you should try eating random plants, as you must be trained in how to process them to remove any potential toxins. “When it comes to mushrooms, learn from an expert!”, he says. “If you make a mistake, it could cause nerve damage.” The great news is that there are fantastic safe plants that you can start enjoying today.

One of the best examples is making white pine needles into a healing tea. It has been documented that Jacques Cartier (the great early explorer of Canada), and half of his ship’s crew, were saved from scurvy (caused by lack of vitamin C) when the Iroquois tribe made them a broth of pine needles. A strong brew of pine tea provides more vitamin C than three lemons. Let the tea steep for about two hours at least. Surprisingly, most pine needle teas are not bitter. But if the tea is strong for your taste, add a little honey, preferably unpasteurized, or try some local maple or birch syrup made around this time of year. The best time to harvest pine needles for tea is from November through April, when the trees produce the greatest amount of nutrients to protect themselves.

WHITE PINE NEEDLE TEA

1 oz (28 g) White Pine Needles

1.5 pints (840 ml) Water

1) Put the needles into an enamel, glass or stainless steel pan (do not use aluminum). Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by one third.

2) Place the water and needles in a thermos or mason jar. Let sit for 2-8 hours. Strain to remove the needles.

EDIBLE NATIVE PLANTS AND NATURALIZED PLANTS

Below is a short list of some of the native and naturalized edible plants to explore in Ontario. Native plants have been here for thousands of years, whereas naturalized plants are those that have been brought by settlers from Europe and other areas of the world and have become part of our local ecology. Be sure to check with an herbalist or wild food expert if you are unsure of your plant identification skills.

EDIBLE NATIVE PLANTS

• Fiddleheads

• Wild garlic

• Wild leeks

• Trout lilies

• Birch sap

• Maple sap

• Sycamore sap

• First shoots of grass (chew or juice)

• Sprouts (called keys) from the trees, such as beach, maple

EDIBLE NATURALIZED PLANTS

• Mustard Greens

• Nettles

• Sun chokes

• Rhubarb

• Asparagus

• Dandelion

• Burdock

• Plantain

• Sheep Sorrel

• Wild Carrot (looks like water hemlock, which is poisonous, so be careful)

If you love these recipe ideas and want to enjoy the experience of foraging for food, check out:

• The Little Black Bear Earth Wisdom Centre www.earthwisdomcentre.com. Hosted by Steven Martyn and Megan Spencer (613) 625-1106.

Dandelion greens are amazing for their nutrient-packed goodness and liver/kidney cleansing properties, but it is tough to get folks hooked on their bitterness. That’s not a problem with this wilted salad. The blueberries add sweetness, the pine nuts lend richness and crunch to the bitter dandelion greens, and the maple or birch syrup brings it all together. It’s easy, nutritious, and tastes like a spring cleanse on a plate.

(Serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup (or more) pine nuts
  • 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
  • One small purple onion, minced
  • 1 to 1-1/2 Tbsp unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
  • 1-1/2 tsp (or to taste) maple or birch syrup
  • ½ cup of dried blueberries (or cranberries if you prefer)
  • 3-4 cups dandelion greens, stems removed, washed, and cut into 3-inch lengths

1) Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and stir until toasted gently. Remove from heat and set aside.

2) Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan and add the chopped purple onion. Cook over medium heat until soft. Add the vinegar and maple syrup, and taste for balance. Add more oil or more vinegar depending on your taste. Add the blueberries, and cook slightly until they soften, about a minute. Lower the heat, and stir the dandelion greens into the pan and toss them around until just wilted.

3) Place all ingredients into a bowl, top with pine nuts, and serve immediately.

Burdock (also known as gobo) is a root used in Japanese cooking. Not only does it taste great, it also supports detoxification. Burdock contains a carbohydrate called insulin, which stabilizes blood sugar and feeds good bacteria in the digestive tract. Similar in flavour to asparagus when boiled, burdock is a pleasant addition to salad when marinated in lemon juice. If fresh burdock root is unavailable, use 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of dried chopped root.

(Makes 2 large or 4 small servings)

Ingredients:

  • 1 piece (12 inches/30 cm long) burdock root
  • 4 cups (1 L) filtered water

1) Slice the burdock into dime-sized pieces and boil in water for 10 minutes in a medium saucepan. (Don’t bother straining the tea because it has large chunks that are best left for steeping.) Drink the tea once it has cooled to a comfortable sipping temperature or store it in a glass jar in the fridge (and don’t worry – it’s natural for it to turn bright emerald green overnight!)

2) Quick Tip: Use the leftover burdock slices for a salad, soup or stew. Just squeeze in a splash of lemon juice to preserve the root and keep it in the fridge for up to a week.

John Robertson is the executive chef at The Big Carrot Natural Food Market (https://www.thebigcarrot.ca) where he focuses on organic and local ingredients. He has been a guest chef and student of The Little Black Bear Earth Wisdom Centre for more 10 years.

What better way to celebrate spring than by eating a bowl of bright green sorrel soup. Sorrel is a green similar to spinach, but with a noticeable sourness. Pick sorrel while the leaves are young and tender. Not just for soup, sorrel is excellent in mixed salads. Make sure to wash the leaves thoroughly, drain and dry.

Robertson likes to purée it to achieve a uniform texture.  Enjoy the soup either hot or cold, but I think it’s best straight from the refrigerator with a dollop of sour cream and freshly ground black pepper.

(Serves 5-6)

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound sorrel leaves, washed and trimmed of stems
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 large shallots, chopped
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 large peeled potatoes, diced
  • coarse sea salt, to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 Tbsp sour cream, to garnish

1) Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Add shallots and cook on medium-high heat until caramelized, about 8 minutes. Add water and potatoes, simmer until potatoes are tender. Add the sorrel, and simmer for about 4-5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

2) Using a hand-held blender, purée.

This recipe is from my book Meals That Heal Inflammation. Burdock is one of the most powerful healing foods in the Japanese diet. The name might be unfamiliar, but you know it as the plant with the burrs that catch on your clothes as you walk through the woods. It has been traditionally used to cleanse the liver, lymph and kidneys. With the added benefit of anti-inflammatory sesame oil, this is one of the true healing dishes. Consider serving it with any fish or lentil dish.

(Makes 3 servings.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 cup burdock root, julienned (see note below)
  • 1 cup vegetable or chicken broth or filtered water
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned
  • 1 Tbsp tamari (wheat-free)

1) In a medium/large skillet or wok, sauté the burdock in sesame oil for 3 minutes over medium heat.

2) Add 1/2 cup (125 mL) of the broth, bring to a boil, cover, and continue to cook for 5 minutes.

3) Add the carrot, tamari, salt, and the remaining broth. Bring to a boil again, then and cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes until vegetables are tender.

4) To prepare burdock, scrub the skin under running water with a brush, like you would for mushrooms. Do not peel burdock root, as most of the nutrients are right below the surface of the skin. And remember, a julienne cut (used commonly in burdock recipes) results in matchstick-sized pieces of the root.

Morel

This recipe, adapted from Susun Weed’s book Healing Wise (Ashtree Publishing), is a wonderful way to cleanse during springtime. She is a famous wise woman herbalist who has shared incredible plant wisdom. If you can’t find yellow dock, you can add extra burdock as it is available both fresh and dried at many health food stores.

(Serves 12-16)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups onion, chopped
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups fresh burdock root
  • 1 cup fresh dandelion (leaves and roots)
  • 1 cup fresh yellow dock (leaves and roots)
  • 4 oz dulse (or other seaweed)
  • 2 cups carrots, sliced
  • 6 cups organic sweet potatoes, cubed
  • 4 quarts water
  • sea salt to taste

1) In a large soup pot, heat the oil and onion on medium heat until golden. Add soaked (not parboiled) burdock root slices. Add chopped fresh dandelion leaves and roots. Add chopped fresh leaves and roots of yellow dock (Rumex crispus). Add all remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook covered at least one hour.

In Robertson’s words, “This is the most memorable meal I’ve had at the Algonquin Tea Company, and one of those moments when you feel truly connected to your experience.  The morels are delicious brown coloured honey combs; so woodsy and full flavoured, yet ethereal at the same time. The taste of morels can’t be compared to any other mushroom – they know who they are! They say that morels are ready to be foraged when the surrounding oak leaves are the size of mouse ears and shortly after a good spring rain. Then, like the jack in the box of the woods, they start popping up everywhere. You need a keen eye to spot them as they are well camouflaged, but once you have an eye for them, you’ll see one where a second ago there wasn’t one. Steven [Martyn] imparted to me the most important lesson in regards to morels, but perhaps to mushrooms in general, ‘You should never pick more than a deer would eat.’ Not picking a spot clean will ensure that the mushrooms will be able to propagate for future pickings, so leave a few morels behind if you find a patch.”

(Serves 3-4)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb fresh morels
  • 1 lb fiddleheads
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 5 Tbsp butter
  • 5-6 sprigs of thyme
  • sea salt to taste

1) Place fiddleheads in a bowl of water and gently unfurl them an inch or so to make sure there is no trapped dirt, then trim the ends if necessary.

2) Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil, add fiddleheads, and simmer for a minute. Remove and plunge them directly into cold water, strain and set aside.

3) Gently toss the morels in a bowl to loosen any dirt that may be trapped in the honeycombs and gently brush away any dirt clinging to them, but do not rinse them in water under any circumstances. Mushrooms are like sponges and will soak up water, diluting their flavour.

4) Add olive oil to a frying pan on medium heat, and then add the butter (the olive oil will allow the butter to cook at a higher temperature without burning). Add the whole thyme sprigs (you can pick them out after). Turn the temperature to low heat, add morels and season with salt. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes. Add the fiddleheads, simmer on low heat for another 3 to 4 minutes just to warm them through. Add more salt if necessary, serve and enjoy.

Julie is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and host of Healthy Gourmet, a reality cooking show aired in over 70 countries. A highly-sought-after anti-inflammatory health expert and speaker, she is the award-winning author of 3 bestselling books. After graduating from both The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, she studied culinary arts at George Brown College, herbalism at Emerson Herbal College, and life coaching with Tony Robbins. Be sure to check out her latest masterclass at www.thrivewithjulie.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and <a href="https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5rDkDBPpg7nCTn64vga7oQ?view_as=subscriber"Youtube.

Write a Comment

view all comments