Search Party; Gathering and Feasting on the Homestead’s Wild Bounty
It’s spring, and throughout most of North America parks and woodlands are busting out all over with new life – some of it quite delicious. Assemble a gang of sharp-eyed friends armed with sharp paring knives, satchels and a trusty edible plant field guide and head on out into the woods or even just around the edges of the homestead, to forage for dinner…then feast!
One springtime favourite among foragers are ramps or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), which I have purposefully left off this list. Why? Because ever since chefs and foodies discovered these tasty little onions they have been harvested to the brink of extinction. Once the ramp is pulled, it will not come back next spring. If you do choose to harvest ramps, be very selective, only take a few, and snip, don’t pull. Preserve the bulb in the ground, and just enjoy the leaves; they’re plenty tasty. If you have the right soil and sunlight – moist and dappled – why not plant some ramps on your property? They are a tasty gift that truly keeps on giving.
In my rural childhood, these pretty little lilies—native to Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and most of the Eastern US— popped up under the weeping willow that grew beside our pond. The ground all around it was consistently damp and shady and just right for marsh marigolds and what we called dogtooth violets. AKA trout lilies.
I don’t have a pond now, but I still find trout lilies when I head out into the woods. They dot the forest floor with speckles of mustard yellow and golden-green; their tulip-like leaves looking quite like the flashing mottled skin of a trout.
Photo: Bites of raw Ontario lake trout wrapped in trout lily leaves.
Look for them in dappled sunlight and moist, organic nutrient-rich woodlands. In all, there are six Erythronium to be found in North America—five on the East Coast. The leaves are tender and slightly sweet eaten raw or just barely blanched. Traditionally, the corm was also boiled and eaten, but I like to leave the roots in the ground for next year.
Redbud – Cercis Canadensis, Eastern Redbud and Cercis occidentalis, Western Redbud
Growing up in Quebec, I hadn’t seen an Eastern redbud until one spring, when driving around Southern Ontario, I finally set eyes on this leafless, bejewelled thing of wonder, and it was love at first sight. The redbud has this amazing habit of blossoming before it leafs out; the tiny, hot pink flowers emerge right from the bark of every branch, giving it a jewel-encrusted look. Tramping through the woods or in a city park, you can’t miss it! Hopefully you have one or two of these beauties on your property.
It’s the pretty, hot-pink blossoms that are edible – up close they look like tiny pea flowers – and that’s because the tree is a member of the pea family. Use them anywhere you might want to add a hit of colour, a hint of sourness, and blast of vitamin C: drinks, salads, pancakes, desserts, or just as a garnish. A few budding branches surrounding the Easter ham or a roasted chicken looks gorgeous! Mature trees also produce pea pods, which can be picked when very young and tender; eat them roasted or pickled.
Photo: Close up of pea-like flowers of the Eastern redbud.
Linden - Tilia americana – AKA: American Linden, Lime, or Basswood
Some folks know linden as lime, and many of us know how much the bees love this tree and how delicious linden honey is, but what many don’t know is that we can enjoy the linden tree too. Starting in about May or early June, depending on where you are in North America, the delicate sprays of lightly scented blossoms will emerge, and that’s what we – and the bees – are after.
As soon as the blossoms emerge – use your nose; you can’t miss the heavenly scent in the air! – harvest them. Use some fresh, and dry the rest. The sprays of edible blooms have a lovely tart citrus note to them. They keep very well once dried. I use an old window screen set up on a clothes-drying rack in my sunroom. Drying time depends on humidity levels, but once they’re dry, I pack them into jars for adding to tea and jellies, or use them fresh in salads; to make cordial or tea; or as a pretty garnish. Some folks say linden tea has a sleepy-time effect…sweet dreams indeed.
Photos – linden: leaves, sweet blossoms and tannic bracts and drying rack set up.
All newly emerged ferns are fiddleheads but not all fiddleheads are good to eat. In Eastern North America only the coiled-up ostrich fern is a real and tasty fiddlehead; in the West, lady or sword ferns make good eating. Learn your ferns or you’re asking for some serious tummy trouble!
At one time considered rare and exotic, fiddleheads are now available everywhere, from high-end menus to your local grocery store. But foraging for them is easy and satisfying. Throughout North America, look for them on the edges of or deep into shady woodlands. These prehistoric edibles go from delicious to dodgy within a day or two of growth; one centimetre of too much unfurling and they become toxic. Only harvest them when they are still tightly coiled as soon as they appear in spring.
I was thrilled to see a big display of fiddleheads at my local supermarket a few Mays ago. Seriously, they took up a huge hunk of real-estate, but hanging above them was a rather ominous sign warning shoppers that fiddleheads must not be eaten raw. It was a tad off-putting, but I get why they have to do it. I tasted one raw, I didn’t like it, reminded me of eating grass, anyway, it’s ill-advised to do so as they can contain pathogens, such as salmonella, hidden away in those curls. There’s no reason to eat them raw, however, I think cooking them to death is also a very bad idea. Here’s what I do when I bring my fiddleheads home: first I get them out of the plastic so they can breathe, then I rinse them in cold water. Next, I trim and blanch them. I drop them into boiling salted water for 1 minute, then transfer them right into a bowl of icy water to shock in the colour and stop the cooking. Once they are cold—test this by squeezing one between two fingers—drain and set them aside. Now they are ready to add to salads, soups, pastas, or wherever your imagination and tummy take you. Store in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze blanched fiddleheads for later use in purées or soups.
Cooking with fiddleheads is a novel, fleeting pleasure. I approach this tiny taste window the same way I do asparagus; I enjoy it while it’s freshest and most local, then, when it’s over, it’s over.
Fiddleheads can be used almost interchangeably with asparagus, kale, spinach, or nettles; they can be puréed into soups and sauces, poached, fried, or roasted; eaten hot or cooked and chilled, with butter, oil, cream sauce, or vinaigrettes.
Naturally containing carcinogens – harmless in small doses – fiddleheads should be considered a once or twice a year treat. There are so many ways to eat them: boiled, steamed, pan-fried, baked, stewed, puréed; added to soups, pastas, salads, quiche – basically anywhere you might add any other green veggie. Fiddleheads love butter! To truly enjoy them as naturally as possible, simply wash well in cold water and pan fry in butter, with salt and pepper. Okay, a little chopped bacon doesn’t hurt.
Photos – Fiddleheads just emerging from the ground. Fiddleheads ready for cooking.
Photo credit: Tristan Pierce
Three Spring Greens Soup with Scallion Yogurt
This pretty, creamy-green soup calls for several wild and domestic greens. It’s easy to whip up, rich, delicious, and nutritious.
2 Tbsp (30 mL) butter
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery plus the small heart with pale leaves, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, scrubbed, coarsely chopped
1 large potato, scrubbed, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups (500 mL) fiddleheads, washed and trimmed, divided
1 cup (250 mL) chopped asparagus – domestic or wild – washed, trimmed; tips trimmed and reserved
1/3 cup (80 mL) medium-dry sherry
8 cups (2 L) loose young spring greens; baby spinach, young nettles, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, chickweed, or a blend
¼ tsp (1 mL) white pepper
5 cups (1.25 L) chicken or vegetable stock
Sea salt to taste
½ cup (125 mL) 35% cream
1 cup (250 mL) full fat, Greek yogurt
6 scallions, washed, trimmed, coarsely chopped
¼ tsp (1 mL) sea salt
Into a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, add the butter, onion, celery, carrot and potato, black pepper; cook, stirring often, over medium heat until onion is soft and becoming translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the sherry, stir, and allow the alcohol to cook off.
Add 1 cup (250 mL) of the fiddleheads, the chopped asparagus; reserve the asparagus tips for later, stir and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Add the white pepper, salt, and stock, bring it up to a simmer; continue to simmer over medium low heat until the veggies are soft enough to mash; about 15 minutes, stir occasionally.
Stir in the leafy greens and cook for about 5 minutes.
If you have an immersion blender, use that to purée the soup; if not, do it in batches in a blender. Make sure you leave the spout in the blender lid open, otherwise, steam and pressure can build up and cause burns and very messy walls! Use a kitchen towel to brace the lid. Once puréed, return to pot; reduce heat to low.
Add the remaining fiddle heads and asparagus tips; simmer until the whole fiddleheads are tender-crisp, about 5 minutes.
Add the cream and stir. Taste again and adjust for salt and pepper.
To make the Scallion Yogurt, simply add the yogurt, scallions, and salt to a blender or food processor and purée until completely smooth; refrigerate. Both the soup and the yogurt garnish can be made a day or two ahead.
Serve the soup with a dollop of Scallion Yogurt and lovely, warm, buttery bread for dipping.