Here in the northwest it has been a stunning and chilly start to spring. Unsurprisingly there has been plenty of rain to feed the new growth and soften the soil for planting. The longer sunlit days are awakening the earth and helping the forests teem with life and delicious wild ingredients making my spring cooking verdant and exciting.
Before I get into a few of my favorite spring foraged goods let’s talk about two important ideas in foraging. The first one being proper identification. Before you consume anything foraged from the wild you must be 100% certain you have properly identified the plant or fungi. If you are new to foraging this is a daunting task and this alone could keep one from going any further. I hope it doesn’t. Foraging is something that I hope to see more and more people getting familiar with. It’s a beautiful way to spend time outside, if properly managed it’s great for the earth and really nourishing for our bodies. And I’m quite certain there are several wild edibles that you can already easily identify that you didn’t even know were edible (dandelions, magnolia blossoms, violets, lilacs, spruce tips….)
If you are just starting out, select a few wild edibles to familiarize yourself with each season. Learn their plant and tree associations. Study their form and get outside. There are many great groups online and in person that can help with identification if you have any questions. Here in Seattle I’m a member of the Puget Sound Mycological society as well several online identification groups that help if I’m in a pinch. My library is full of resources and I have a few advanced foragers that expect to get a few texts from me in the spring and fall seasons. I also have the Seek app on my phone that isn’t completely reliable but it definitely helps when I’m out in the field (with cell service) and don’t have all my books with me.
The other idea that we must discuss before getting further along in our foraging journey is what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls, the honorable harvest, in her bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
“The Honorable Harvest, a practice both ancient and urgent, applies to every exchange between people and the Earth. Its protocol is not written down, but if it were, it would look something like this:
Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Take only what you need and leave some for others.
Use everything that you take.
Take only that which is given to you.
Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
Reciprocate the gift.
Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.”
Foraging tests my scarcity mindset. Especially in the beginning it was so hard to leave some behind and to not fill my basket to overflowing. But with more experience and trust in the earth’s provision I know that some days the harvest is great and some days it’s meager but it’s always enough. Sometimes the lack of one wild food introduces me to the next. If I allow it there is always something to learn and if I don’t get swept up in the “need to find it” mentality I can walk out of the woods with a clearer mind and more at peace in my body than I walked in with. Even if the basket is empty.
So now that we are only going to eat what we are certain is edible and we are only going to take what is given and what we can use, leaving some behind for others (including other beings and the earth) let’s talk about a few of my favorite spring finds.
I won’t go further here on nettles as I already dedicated an entire post to my favorite spring green. But I mention them here because they are still out there and definitely a favorite to introduce new foragers too. Nettles are abundant, easily recognized (most likely you already know nettles - probably from their unpleasant sting), delicious and incredibly good for us. They are protein rich and full
of vitamins and I swear to you, my allergies have gotten so much better since I started consuming nettles by the basket-load in early spring.
In the kitchen, use them anywhere you would spinach. Again, check out my post in early march for how to prepare them (without stinging yourself) and cook with them.
Again, I mentioned these in a post recently and gave you a recipe for Maple Blossom Fritters. These early spring blooms abound and are a unique edible. Often you’ll see people pushing their flavor toward the sweet but I find them lightly vegetal and great with cheese. Recently I made a vinaigrette out of quickly sautéed blossoms finely minced along with chives. This vinaigrette cascaded over Burrata and made a lovely snack with crisp grilled bread.
These blooms are best foraged when they just start to emerge. If you see the cottony interior of the bloom they are passed their prime. If in the lower elevations the blooms are past prime trying hiking higher up to find the blossoms that are still tight and tender. All maple blossoms are edible but have different flavor profiles so get out there and start eating your trees!
Fiddleheads are the early spring growth of a fern. The young plant unfurls out of a stemmed spiral and when those are harvested in early spring they are a lovely edible. Ostrich and lady ferns are the primary edible ferns. Be sure you can identify them with 100% accuracy as there are fern varieties that contain toxic chemicals.
Fiddleheads have a texture similar to asparagus or green beans with a flavor that is mildly bitter and peppery. Some say that lady ferns taste lightly licorice-like but I haven’t found that - perhaps when consumed raw.
Lady ferns grow near lots of moisture, around streams and creeks. Their lacy fronds are delicate and bright citron green in color.
NOT Oyster mushrooms. Both are growing on dead trees and appear the same color. Both also have gills but notice on these ones that the gills stop at the stem and the stem is definitely more pronounced. These are also growing individually while oyster mushrooms tend to grow in clusters.
Wild Oyster Mushrooms
These mushrooms are both fall and spring fruiting fungi. Here in the Pacific Northwest I find Oyster mushrooms fruiting on dead alder trees. They range in color from white to various shades of brown and grays. The stipe (or stem) is off center and connects laterally to the dead tree. Sometimes the stipe is not visible but when visible the gills extend through the stipe. All of these are key identifiers as there are some toxic look-alikes that you need to be aware of.
Oyster mushrooms have a firm texture and a light mushroom flavor. They are meaty, nutty and very fragrant. They dry beautifully and when finely ground make a lovely mushroom powder to add to any recipe for a depth of flavor. They sauté beautifully and retain a lovely texture. I’ve also breaded and fried them with great success.
Oyster mushrooms grow abundantly and are quite easy to identify. In my area I usually see them flushing around the first week of May and this week I spotted my first small patch.
It’s not normal to find morel mushrooms in the snow. These beauties were found in a recent burn area and we caught them after a wild spring snowfall.
Morels are one of the most sought after mushrooms; prized for their meaty, intense flavor that, to me, has notes of truffle. I think their ability to hide in the wild also adds to their allure. Every year I hope to find myself in a flush of morels, with their honeycomb-like structure peering through the earth as far as the eye can see but those are rare. Although I have several dreams of this scene every year, usually as winter is ending and signs of spring are just starting to pop.
There are many morel varieties and the easiest place to start your morel hunt is by looking at burn maps. Morel flushes are likely to occur in areas of recent wildfires. This beautiful phenomenon shows how quickly and efficiently the earth sets about to repair herself. In our Kitchen Unnecessary series we did an entire episode on burn morels and marveled at the beauty from ashes. You can watch that episode here.
Other spring wild ingredients:
Flowers (lilacs, peonies, tulips, violets and so many more!)
Spruce and fir ti[s
What am I missing?
If you aren’t planning to get out and forage these ingredients yourself but want to try them head to the farmers market where more and more wild edibles are hitting the stalls. In Seattle we are fortunate enough to have Foraged and Found provide us with wild edibles all throughout the year. I’ve found several wild foods in my grocery stores now as well, including wild oyster mushrooms, morels, ramps, dandelion greens, sorrel and much more.
Get involved in local groups like the mushroom society in your area and even local foraging groups on Facebook. They can be super helpful when learning how to properly identify an edible. And start collecting guide books. Get some that are small enough to fit in your backpack to carry when you’re out in the wild. Here’s a post I wrote about some of my favorite books for foraging and outdoor cooking.
Foraging classes are an excellent place to start. There is nothing better than getting out there and seeing the plants and fungi first hand and knowing that you are with a trusted guide who has been doing this for years.
Wild foods are a great way to interact with the earth. For me it’s a daily reminder of how we are continually cared for by our planet which in turn prompts me to care and defend her. The work I put in to fill a basket with wild foods has greatly increased by care and respect for all food. The foods we eat are a daily gift that I am so very grateful for.
Morel Toast with Charred Ramp Aioli
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 thick slices country bread
1 bunch ramps or scallions
1 cup mayonnaise
8 oz morels, roughly chopped
Fresh herbs to garnish, such as chives, fresh parsley, edible flowers
Drizzle the bread slices with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Set a grill grate over hot coals then grill the bread until the edges are charred and the exterior is crisp while the interior stays nice and soft. Set the bread aside.
Set the ramps over on the grill grate and grill until wilted and charred in parts, about 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and repeat. Set those aside to cool then roughly chop and stir in the mayonnaise. Add a hefty pinch of sea salt then set aside.
Set a large cast iron skillet directly on the hot coals or on the grill grate then add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the morels and a pinch of sea salt then sauté until deeply caramelized.
Slather a good bit of the ramp aioli onto the crisp pieces of toast then add the warm morels on top. Finish with a flurry of chopped chives and wild edible flowers. Enjoy immediately.