BRATTLEBORO—Some Vermonters still participate in the act of hunting and gathering to fill their larders. The “gathering” part is difficult when snow covers most of the ground, but once spring arrives, many edibles begin to pop up in the woods, alongside rivers, and even on lawns.
And foragers soon follow.
Not all foragers keep their bounties to themselves. Some share with friends, and others forage for ingredients for their own restaurants, as does Michael Fuller, chef and owner of T.J. Buckley’s in Brattleboro.
Jason Tostrup, chef at Epic restaurant and special events chef for Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, as well as the chef at the Inn at Weathersfield, forages for all of his kitchens, especially in the spring because, as he says, “I love the smell [of] digging dirt in the forest [and] the primitive nature of hunting for your food.”
Others have developed foraging into a career, or at least a supplemental income, sending crates of herbs, greens, and mushrooms culled from the wild outdoors to wholesale food distributors, grocery stores, and restaurants in Vermont and beyond.
Even high-end restaurants in New York City, such as Franny’s in Brooklyn and Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Jean-Georges in Manhattan, have Vermont-foraged foods drop-shipped to their kitchens.
And their seasons — and ours — start right about now.
Introducing wild foods
As part of the River Garden’s Brown Bag Lunch series, Trudy Crites of Brattleboro recently gave a presentation on foraging, centered on Eat Your Weeds, her guide to wild greens and herbs, one of two books on wild foods that she has self-published.
Crites illustrated both books with detailed drawings and paintings of each entry, so readers can identify the various plants and mushrooms when they venture out to pick them.
Other guides can aid a new forager, and one should bring either a book or a knowledgable forager into the wild.
That’s because you must learn the difference between various plants, including separating the ones that are delicious (or at least edible) from the ones that will make you sick (or worse).
An experienced forager will also help you learn to harvest the plants correctly so you will get the most from them, as well as forage responsibly so more plants can regrow.
“I never guess and always have a field guide,” Tostrup says, noting the emergence of smart-phone apps for foragers. At least 15 foraging-related apps are available for the iPhone.
It might not be easy to find someone to take you foraging, as many foragers are very protective of their favored spots and won’t readily reveal their locations.
Dan Restivo of Brattleboro enjoys foraging for ramps — wild leeks — this time of year.
The plant is part of a forest’s undergrowth, and it loves shady areas near creeks and rivers. The north-facing side of an embankment is your best bet.
Bring a spoon to dig the bulb out of the sandy soil. Ramps have a very recognizable aroma — raw onion — and there are no harmful plants that look and smell similar, so it’s almost impossible to confuse another plant for wild leeks.
Ideal as ‘potherbs’
In Crites’ recent presentation, she spoke of a great many edible plants — most of which are considered weeds — that one can easily find this time of year, and many of them are ideal as “potherbs,” offering a substitute for spinach.
“In the USA, organic vegetables are expensive,” Crites said. “Poor people can’t afford them. Weeds are free, and most people throw them away.”
“I’ve tried every weed in my book, and I’m still alive,” she said.
• Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting. They must be cooked to remove the stingers and are not recommended to eat raw. This plant is high in vitamins A, B, C, and D, and in minerals, especially iron.
Stinging nettles offers some of the best nutrition of all foraged plants. Steam the leaves lightly and freeze, then defrost year-round to make soup.
• Amaranth (pigweed). This plant is common in gardens and cultivated cornfields. The leaves are the only edible part; avoid the prickly seed spikes.
• Lamb’s quarters. Crites calls them the “most despised weed in the garden,” but says they taste just like spinach when cooked — and they have the same nutrients.
If you must grow them, they are much easier to cultivate because they are so prolific, but most people don’t need to do so on purpose. Just ask a friend with a garden, and he’ll be glad to have you do some weeding to remove them.
• Lady’s thumb. In Crites’ book on weeds, she says, “If there aren’t enough Lady’s thumb plants growing in the garden, roadsides may provide enough leaves for a meal (it is good to pick the leaves only).”
Chances are, you’ve seen these plants in gardens and on lawns. They have tiny, pink blossoms clustered densely on a spike, and the leaves are narrow and oval-shaped.
• Jewelweed, in addition to being a delicious green, also has medicinal value. Its juice is a good antidote for poison ivy or to prevent an allergic reaction, should you come in contact with the irritating plant.
Freeze jewelweed in ice cubes to provide year-round protection against poison ivy. To find it, look in wet areas.
• Evening primrose. Eat the cooked leaves but, as with all foraged plants, leave a few to grow. In the fall, shake out the seeds and collect them for use in breads and salads. The seeds are rich in essential oils.
Other potherb and salad vegetables available for foraging now are purslane, plantain, chickweed, and bishop’s weed.
Seven-plus herbs of spring
When Crites was a young girl growing up in Germany, every spring her family would venture outside to gather the “seven herbs of spring,” which her mother would cook into a tonic soup.
These plants are also available in Windham County: jewelweed, yarrow, violet leaves, dandelion leaves, milkweed, Lady’s thumb, and plantain leaves.
For Vermonters concerned with the problem of invasive species — non-native plants or animals brought to the area which proliferate because they have no local species to control their growth — foraging for a particular eighth plant is a way to be a small part of the solution.
Japanese knotweed is tough to eradicate because its root system is invasive and strong, and it is considered one of the world’s worst invasive species by the World Conservation Union.
But if enough people develop a taste for it, at least some would disappear.
Tostrup makes a tapenade from the plant and serves it with scallop ceviche, or he simply keeps a jar of it in the refrigerator to use as a condiment.
Crites strips the plant of its leaves, which are edible when cooked, and simmers the thick stalks with a little sugar, saying it tastes similar to rhubarb and can be used as such in pies or muffins
Dandelion is one of the most versatile of wild plants. Don’t wait much longer, as the leaves get tough and bitter as the year progresses. They should still be fresh and tender this early in May — but hurry.
Joanne Nielsen of Brattleboro finds dandelions in her yard, and enjoys them in salads. Crites uses the flowers to make wine, or she simmers the flowers in lemon and sugar to make a sort of dandelion “honey.” The roots can be sautéed with onions, or dried and ground to make a coffee substitute.
Fiddleheads — the furled heads of young ferns — are another spring arrival. The Chelsea Royal Diner offers them this time of year as a vegetable side, in a simple sauté with diced fresh tomato, garlic, and onions.
Lucas Tomolonis of Putney offers some advice to anyone looking to forage for fiddleheads: “[They] need to be a smooth, solid kelly green color: not fuzzy, no dark little splotchy things on them. Make sure you blanch them before cooking to remove tannins that will give you a belly ache.”
At a 2012 James Beard Foundation “Vermont Veal Renaissance” dinner held at the foundation’s house in Manhattan, Tostrup offered pickled fiddleheads in a chilled soup he made of nettles and wild salmon.
There are many reasons a person may decide to forage for their food.
Some feel it is a revolutionary act, choosing to go “off the grid” to escape, as much as possible, the modern food distribution industry, including agribusiness.
Some appreciate the environmental considerations, as cultivating food essentially involves battling or attempting to control nature, whereas foraging is simply gathering what’s already available.
Some want to know exactly where their food comes from, so they can go right to the source to get clean, safe food — as long as it’s not alongside a traveled road, where automobile exhaust, herbicides, or dogs can contaminate the plants.
Still others love the entire experience of finding and bringing home the freshest food possible.
Rhonda Anderson, of Colrain, Mass., sums up the experience as she describes a recent family dinner.
“We ate the best meal — and entirely caught and foraged in our local watershed,” she said.