March 20th is a special time of the year, as it marks the beginning of spring. But, while many parts of the country are enjoying the emerging green plant life, the Maine landscape is still covered in feet of snow.
As I anxiously await a visual of bare ground, I can't help but think of all the new ways I want to use the first few edible plants that will soon be available. A seasonal favorite, nettle chimichurri is a welcomed addition to our dinner table as well as fresh dandelion greens, which in the early part of spring, lack the intense bitterness that comes later in the season.
After a long and cold winter that has been filled with slow cooked meats, squashes, potatoes, and other glorious roots, it is time to wake from our winter slumber and feel alive again. Getting myself out into nature to forage for edibles has many benefits besides their culinary attributes.
While the warmer parts of the country enjoy the springs new growth, I'll be reviewing Ancestral Plants by Arthur Haines and day dreaming about enjoying the following wild foods in the upcoming months.
Urtica dioca lets it's presence be known. A slight brush up against their tricomes and you will be dealing with the irritated sting that stinging nettles are known for! Depending on the season, nettles have many uses, but it is the early spring greens that I pursue the most.
This widely dispersed perennial flowering herb can thrive in meadows, but is often found in wetter areas, such as alongside rivers of streams.
Nettles are easy to incorporate into your diet because they can be treated like any other leafy green. Although, because of their irritating hairs, it is recommended that you soak them in water or give them quick blanch to deactivate the stinging chemicals.
Other suggestions: replace cooked spinach in any recipe, add nettles to stir fry or simply sauté with lots of garlic and lemon.
2. Fiddlehead Ferns
Fiddlehead ferns are one of my favorite spring "vegetables" to incorporate into my diet. Come May, foragers will line the streets selling off their harvest for as low as $2-3 a pound. May is also the time where I find the nearest rivers and streams searching for the motherland of edible furled fronds. There are two ferns in particular that I seek out. The ostrich fern is likely the most common and seen in grocery stores across America for a few weeks each spring. The bracken fern is a bit less utilized but has an amazing flavor that is reminiscent of cherries when being boiled.
Although not deadly, fiddlehead ferns contain carcinogenic compounds and must be boiled for a few minutes before consuming. This is not the plant to experiment with in its raw state. Trust me, I know!
Once boiled and cooled down, fiddleheads can be used in a variety of ways. Sautéing them in butter with garlic is a standard and never seems to fail. When possible, I will put up 5-10 pounds so that I may enjoy them come winter.
Other suggestions: blanched fiddleheads with mushrooms, meat, fish, egg. Pairs well with lobster. One of our favorites is a fiddlehead stir fry with a fried egg in a corn tortilla.
Ramps are a perennial wild onion that grows throughout North America and imparts a welcoming garlic scent and onion flavor to my spring creations. Just as my stash of homegrown garlic runs out, Allium tricoccum makes its presence known.
While ramps are considered to be a culinary delicacy and used in great quantities in various parts of the US and Canada, harvesting must be done in a sustainable way to ensure they can be enjoyed by others in the years to come.
In the spring, it is the green leaf that should be harvested, so that the bulb and root may continue to grow well into the spring. Those harvesting the entire plant, root included, do not allow for the plant to continue on into the following year.
Other suggestions: add to stir fry, put in frittata, chop raw and add to a salad.
While the top 3 ingredients may be the most desirable wild foods come spring time, there are dozens of other plants that can be safely harvested and easily incorporated into spring themed dishes. Dandelion greens scatter across yards and garden beds and taste best before they flower. Fresh dandelion greens add a great contrasting flavor to salads. Colt's foot, which at a quick glance, looks similar to dandelion flowers and add a colorful addition to salads. Mallow, wild strawberry leaves, Japanese knot weed and mullein shoots, chickweed, and garlic mustard are just a few other wild offerings that I seek out with joy and enthusiasm.