Foraging for wild food in your neighborhood
“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.
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.