01 April 2011

Fiddleheads, Truffles, Nettles…Oh My!


Wild edibles have a mysterious charm. If we were lost in the wilderness we could take comfort in knowing food was available…if only we knew what to look for! Eat wild foods and you connect to the earth, releasing yourself from the clutches of the cultivated hand of man…at least for a meal or two. The allure of wild forage is also in its relative unpredictability, and therefore surprise.

Though wild edibles are found year round, there is something about spring’s wild gifts that make us revere winter and appreciate even more what the warmth brings. These wild delights might include morels, fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, ramps (or wild leeks), truffles and elderflowers.

Samuel Johnson wrote:

“There is something inexpressibly pleasing in the annual renovation of the world and the new display of the treasures of nature.”

If you’re not inclined to hunt for these treasures on your own, there are several market vendors who can satisfy your earthly desires, some desires anyway (see below). If nothing else, eating found foods stimulates the palate by introducing new textures and flavors. But with their allure also comes brevity. Wild edibles are nature’s limited time offer. When you see them, buy them!

Below are some of the wild edibles you might find at the market. Ask vendors about selecting, storing and enjoying these goodies.

Fiddlehead ferns resemble the scroll at the end of a violin. They’re the young and unfurled fronds of the ostrich fern. Only available for a couple weeks in spring, fiddleheads have a number of nutritional benefits, and taste a bit like a cross between asparagus and spinach. Their shape alone warrants a spot on your spring plate. They need to be washed well. Steam, sauté or pickle. Pair with butter, lemon and wild mushrooms. See market chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans’ recipe for pickled fiddleheads.

Stinging nettles will satisfy the culinary adventure seekers, but once you get past the hundreds of toxin-filled tiny hypodermic needles, you’re off and running. They have more bark than bite if you save yourself the time and risk by turning a bagful of nettles into a pot of boiling salted water for 2 to 3 minutes. The sting is gone and you’ve got before you the most nutritious of greens, rivaling the likes of spinach, chard and kale! Check out this farmers market article on nettles. Or see Kathryn’s recipe-packed nettles post. Or download my recipe for Herbed Nettle Pancakes.

Morels are among the most prized of the wild mushrooms, due as much to their elusiveness as to their rich, woodsy, earthy flavor. And this comes at a cost. But because these dimpled cone-shaped mushrooms are packed with flavor, you only need a few to add some wow to a cream sauce for pasta along with asparagus and fresh herbs. There’s barely a dish that doesn’t like morels. These will appear in the market soon.

Truffles can be even more elusive than their above-ground fungal cousins. They’re famous for their pungent, earthy, almost erotic aroma—one that seems to defy a standard description. Therefore they’re used sparingly and most often fresh, as their signature aroma fades when exposed to heat. Grate over chicken or fish dishes and into sauces or risotto just before serving. You can make your own truffled salt, butter or oil. Store with hard-boiled eggs and you’ve got truffled eggs. The black truffles (earthy, fruity aroma) you see now are winter truffles and will soon end. Coming up are white truffles (spicy, slightly garlicy aroma) later in spring.

Elderflower is delicate and sweetly floral, available for only a couple of weeks in spring. An immune-system booster and influenza therapy, this blossom is used in making liquor, extract, syrup and jam. Use elderflowers to scent cookies, cakes or muffins. How do elderflower fritters dipped in honey sound? Perhaps an elderflower popsicle is more to your taste?


Dining Wild!
Has reading about the wild foods highlighted above made you curious and more than a little hungry? Treat yourself to a spring Forager’s Feast 4-course dinner prepared by chef Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans, featuring items both grown and foraged by PFM vendor Springwater Farm and paired with wines by Twist Wine Company. Gratuities support the market’s Fresh Exchange program. Dates are April 10 and 16. Buy tickets here.


The vendors below carry some variety of wild foraged items.  Ask at the information booth to be directed to these vendors, and stop by their booths to see what they have.
• Early Mom
• Favorite Produce of Oregon
• Kaleng
• Misty Mountain Mushrooms
• Prairie Creek
• Springwater Farms
• Winters Farm