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Thursday, March 29, 2012 02:55 am

More than morels

There are lots of other spring edibles in the wild


So far it’s been an iffy year for local morels, those wonderful wild mushrooms whose cratered caps resemble sponges. In fact, “sponge mushrooms” was what my family called them; I didn’t hear their “morel” moniker until I was an adult.

Whether it’s a good or bad year for morels depends on several factors (as do all fungi): a hospitable location, precisely the right soil temperature and abundant rainfall are the most important. But there are other wild or at least semi-wild edibles worth foraging for in spring. If you’re like me, you don’t need an excuse to get out into the gorgeous show that spring displays each year. Its beauty is enough to entice me; but foraging for spring’s culinary bounty makes it even more special. Here are just a few among many spring edibles that can currently or soon be found in local woods and fields, as well as in yards and gardens:

I wrote about dandelion greens and stinging nettles last year in my 4/28 IT column. That column included a recipe for spring pottage, a “spring tonic” soup made with the first available greens, especially stinging nettles. Nettles are considered especially good, both for their flavor and, uh, “cleansing properties.”

As for dandelions, one year when I was a child, my grandmother offered to pay me a penny for each dandelion flower I could gather. I thought it would be the easiest money I’d ever made: after all there had to be thousands – maybe even millions – on our land. But not long after starting the project, I was struggling between avarice (I wanted to make as much money as possible) and duty (I knew if didn’t fulfill my grandmother’s requirement, she’d not only be unable to make whatever it was that she wanted them for, she’d be disappointed in me).

It turned out that Nana wanted my dandelion harvest to make wine. Because I’d collected them, I was allowed a small sip of the wine after it had fermented. Truthfully I don’t remember its exact taste, but I do remember that it had a weird yellow hue and was icky-sweet.

Nana occasionally also would cut tender early spring dandelion greens for a salad, using the same dressing and technique as she did for salads of wilted spinach or soft spring lettuces: sautéing bacon bits, then removing them on paper towels to drain while she added a mixture of cider vinegar, sugar and water to the fat left in the pan, bringing it to a boil, and pouring the hot dressing over the greens (augmented with thinly sliced scallions). She’d toss it so that the greens wilted slightly and then portion it onto individual plates and garnish the salads with hard-boiled egg slices.

I didn’t like that dandelion salad – even the very youngest dandelion greens had a slight bitterness that was unpleasant to my young palate. But actually I didn’t like the milder spinach or lettuce versions much better. When I was assigned to transport the salad plates to the table – as I frequently was – I’d sneak some of the other plates’ bacon bits onto mine, hiding them under the greens. The more bacon per bite made it easier to get the salad down.     

Whether reluctantly or enthusiastically, I’ve been eating stinging nettles and dandelion greens for decades. But this year I’ve been foraging other spring edibles – some for their flavor, and others for the unique beauty and the touch of spring that they provide.

I’ve long known that daylily flowers are edible. (Daylilies’ proper name is hemerocallis; they’re a different genus than the lillium family.) I’ve lightly battered and fried daylily blossoms, (a common treatment for squash blossoms), used them as a garnish, and separated and sometimes shredded the petals for a colorful addition to salads. I’ve also purchased dried daylily buds at Asian groceries; they’re an essential ingredient of the classic Chinese (and very popular in America) preparation, mu shu.

But I only recently discovered how delicious young daylily shoots are. Harvested when the green leaves are three inches to four inches above ground, they’ll have roughly an equal part of white, making them look very like baby leeks. I stir-fried them until the green parts are wilted and the whites are crisp-tender. Their flavor was very like fresh green beans.

 Finding out how delicious daylily shoots were was exciting, but even more so was discovering a use for the wide swaths of common orange daylilies on our property. They’d been planted by the previous owners years before we bought our house. Back then, the daylilies probably bloomed. But over the years multiple trees had spread their branches over the daylily areas. They still flourish – and spread – but no longer get enough sunlight to bloom. For years we’ve tried to eradicate them without resorting to chemicals. We’ve kept digging and digging, but that’s just increased their ability to proliferate. If only I could create a market for them with locavore chefs in central Illinois, St. Louis, and Chicago… .

Redbud blossoms are another recent find, and one for which I have to thank Maldaner’s chef/owner Michael Higgins. Redbud blossoms are somewhat tangy and reminded me of the clover blossoms I used to munch on as a child. I’ve also read that they can be pickled, although I haven’t found a relevant recipe. Though I’ve not had them yet, the green seed pods apparently are also edible and, when young and tender, can be cooked with butter “just like peas.” I’m not sure whether they’re supposed to be shelled like peas – no redbud seedpods I’ve ever seen have had seeds large enough to shell. Maybe they’re meant to be stir-fried like snow peas or sugar snaps. And maybe it’s those green seedpods that are good for pickling.

Notwithstanding their pickling potential, redbud blossoms or buds fall into the category of spring foraging edibles used primarily for garnish or for the color they lend to a dish. Others on that list – in fact, those at the top of it – are violets and their close cousins, pansies and violas.

Most members of that violet family are cultivated rather than wild – at least when they were planted. But many (particularly violets), have seeded themselves so that they can often be found naturalized, which brings me to my mom’s salad.

For as long as I can remember, everyone has always loved my mom’s salad. It was one of her signature dishes. Even kids used to beg her to bring it to potlucks. Friends invited to dinner would eagerly ask, “Are you making your salad?”

As with so many outstanding home cooks, she doesn’t use an exact recipe. It’s essentially a kitchen-sink concoction: iceberg lettuce, other seasonally appropriate vegetables, cheeses (including lots of Parmesan), diced lunchmeats, hard-boiled eggs and homemade croutons, tossed with a good Italian vinaigrette. What really blew everyone away, though, were the flowers. In early spring she’d throw in handfuls of violets. Later it might be violas or pansy petals; later still it was sage or chive blossoms. Some added flavor, others just visual appeal – but they all contributed an exotic note to Mom’s salad.

As with any wild edible, and especially with anything you might find in a cultivated yard or garden, the most important thing is making sure that whatever you’ve found is safe to eat (for which numerous websites have helpful information and identifying pictures), and that your finds haven’t been treated with harmful chemicals or other substances.

Happy foraging!

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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