For­ag­ing for wild food in your neigh­bor­hood

The News-Times - - FROM THE FRONT PAGE - By Frank Whit­man Frank Whit­man can be reached at NotBread­[email protected]

“I have a bit of an odd­ity in my yard,” the phone mes­sage said.

My neigh­bor had called to re­port a pos­si­ble clus­ter of morel mush­rooms.

“I know you have a friend who knows some­thing about mush­rooms,” he went on to say. He then told me where they were and en­cour­aged me to come and have a look.

It’s sur­pris­ing to learn how much food is grow­ing wild in our yards and neigh­bor­hoods. Not too many gen­er­a­tions ago, peo­ple here lived off the land and knew what they could gather to eat and where to find it. Now, it’s a lost art, prac­ticed by just a few en­thu­si­asts.

My mush­room-savvy neigh­bor, Myr­iam, came right over. She be­longs to the Connecticu­t Val­ley My­co­log­i­cal So­ci­ety. Myr­iam has been study­ing mush­rooms for years, and even keeps a photo al­bum of the fungi she has found. The so­ci­ety or­ga­nizes a sched­ule of for­ays where mem­bers comb the woods for ed­i­ble mush­rooms.

When she saw the clus­ter of morels, she prac­ti­cally jumped for joy. There was no doubt they were the real thing.

“I’ve been search­ing the woods near and far for th­ese,” she said, “but here they are within sight of the road.”

She gath­ered, cleaned, and cooked the mush­rooms and brought them back to share. Their del­i­cate fla­vor was de­li­cious with penne pasta and a lit­tle bit of cream thick­ened with goat cheese.

Find­ing morels is a chancy busi­ness. In his en­ter­tain­ing book, “Morels,” Michael Kuo ex­plains that you can visit the same morel spot over the years and never have the same ex­pe­ri­ence. One year may pro­duce a bo­nanza har­vest, while the next is fruit­less. Ei­ther way, the hunt can in­volve scuf­fling through the damp, some­times muddy, un­der­growth look­ing for fun­gal trea­sure.

Myr­iam agreed. She checks the same spots year af­ter year with no as­sur­ance of a find. Whether hunt­ing on her own or on a club foray with the Connecticu­t Val­ley My­co­log­i­cal So­ci­ety, the re­sults are never guar­an­teed. You’ve got to love the hunt as much as the find — maybe more.

Wild ramps are an­other spring­time quest for lo­cal for­agers. Part of the onion fam­ily, ramps have a slightly gar­licky onion fla­vor. Look­ing a lit­tle like lily of the val­ley with tapered oval leaves, they are among the first ed­i­ble greens to ap­pear in spring and as such were an im­por­tant food source for na­tive Amer­i­cans and early set­tlers.

Ramps are in fash­ion th­ese days. Like as­para­gus, their bright fla­vor is a har­bin­ger of the fresh, lo­cal food sea­son to come. You see them on sea­sonal restau­rant menus, at farm­ers mar­kets, and some­times even in stores. All this pop­u­lar­ity has put some over-har­vest­ing pres­sure on nat­u­ral sources.

Last year Myr­iam brought me a hand­ful of just-picked ramps. The leaves can be sliced and added to sal­ads or tossed in scram­bled eggs with­out cook­ing. Both leaf and bulb can be quickly sauteed and added to omelettes, pasta, wild mush­rooms, or a potato gratin.

I’ve heard that there is a big patch of ramps along the road in my neigh­bor­hood, but the eti­quette of th­ese things prevents the for­ager from di­vulging lo­ca­tions. There is some shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion among ded­i­cated for­agers, but those of us on the out­side have to rely on the gen­eros­ity of oth­ers.

For an easy for­age, re­quir­ing no spe­cial train­ing or se­cret lo­ca­tions, come over to my yard and pick some dan­de­lion greens! The slightly bit­ter leaves add some zing to a mixed green salad. The greens can also be wilted in olive oil as a side dish. I’ve even heard of dan­de­lion tea.

Pick the greens young and ten­der. By def­i­ni­tion they come from weedy lawns, but it’s wise to make sure they haven’t been treated with any weed killer. In my yard, you’re in com­pe­ti­tion with a chubby ground­hog who likes to come around in the morn­ing to snaf­fle up the flow­ers.

Myr­iam also pointed out wild mus­tard, a sin­gle-stalk knee-high with tiny white flow­ers grow­ing in my gar­den as well as boun­ti­fully along the road. She en­cour­aged me to nib­ble on a leaf. The fresh, tangy, herbal fla­vor would be great in sal­ads.

For­ag­ing puts you in touch with na­ture and sea­sonal grow­ing rhythms. It’s an en­joy­able mix of out­door ac­tiv­ity and in­door study. Myr­iam showed me her shelf of ref­er­ence books and em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of hav­ing a men­tor. You don’t want to pick the wrong thing. The nat­u­ral de­fenses of some plants, can be harm­ful to peo­ple

The Connecticu­t Val­ley My­co­log­i­cal So­ci­ety web­site, cvms­fungi.org is a good place to start. It’s a great re­source for mush­room hunt­ing and an in­tro­duc­tion to the wider world of for­ag­ing. I’m not sug­gest­ing we live off the land, but it’s nice to know what’s out there and ap­pre­ci­ate the for­ag­ing skills of our fore­bears.

Frank Whit­man / For Hearst Connecticu­t Me­dia

Sauteed morels (and one fresh one) and ramps ready to eat.

Penne with lo­cal morels and ramps.

Myr­iam's photo al­bum of found fungi.

A morel for­aged in up­state Connecticu­t.

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