Jumping across an icy creek last November, I saw something green waving in the water. Watercress. I sat there a moment and munched, then grabbed my rifle and continued searching for my elk. The spicy taste and bright color were in sharp contrast to the dreary day.
I returned to the same creek last week, after 150-plus days of winter, challenging locavore food options (which did, luckily, include elk) and general cabin fever in Missoula. But this time, instead of my gun, I brought Shorty. She and I were armed with a shopping bag, scissors and a pair of leather gloves. This time, instead of a surprise detour, watercress was the calculated destination. Except our calculations were off.
Being early May in a late-blooming spring on a north-facing slope, the watercress was too small to be worth picking. We’d have to come back.
“Well, there are dandelions,” consoled Shorty, who likes them better than watercress, anyway. Alas, the dandelions weren’t the large, lush, shade-grown leaves and buds that she messes with.
We hung out and munched a few dandelion leaves, checking in on the local flavors, when she spotted some nettles blanketing an area between a cottonwood tree and some bushes. I pulled on my gloves. Shorty grabbed her scissors.
You only want the top few inches of the nettle plant. Post-snippage, Shorty’s scissors become tongs, carefully transferring the plants into her bag, while I broke the stems by hand, protected from the venomous barbs by the pigskin gloves I’d traded for a deer hide the other year.
After the slightest cooking, the stingers wilt and you can enjoy their abundant flavor and nutrients, unstung.
That night we ushered in the great outdoor season with a dinner of “spring tonic.” The term comes from the book Eating Wild Plants (Mountain Press, 1977), by the late, great naturalist and locavore Kim Williams, who wrote: “Before the era of supermarkets and vitamins in bottles, the first wild greens of spring were not only a treat but a medicine. Sulfur and molasses was the tonic for some families, but for others it was a mess of dandelion greens or a salad of watercress or tea made from fresh strawberry leaves dug from under the snow.” The tonic, as she notes, comes from foods or other potent edibles that have restorative, invigorating, cleansing and other properties.
The idea behind Williams’ spring tonic is that after a long, musty winter of living on sugar, flour, bacon and whatever else our pioneering forefathers could stash away, their bodies would be running dry on certain micronutrients. The fresh greens of spring delivered a burst of vitamins, minerals and other fancy compounds that—long before anybody had heard of anti-oxidants—offered a vitality boost few could afford to pass up.
On the gourmet side of this coin, there is the issue of terroir, which is French for “land” or “earth” but in a broader sense refers to the unique characteristics—soil, region, and climate, among them—that affect foods and wines. If you can distinguish among the bitter earth flavors of competing dandelion salads, then you’re ready for the major leagues, like Shorty. For the rest of us, the powerful flavors of the most potent of wild foods are best brought out delicately, in conjunction with the tame foods our tender palates are more used to.
During the gathering, meanwhile, you can catch the rays of the new sun, inhale the smells, get scratched by twigs, step in the water, and get buzzed by flies. These and countless more interactions with the wakening earth are a sort of tonic in themselves.
Back home, the nettles were steamed and dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil and mashed garlic. They went alongside a transition salad, which bridged the gap between winter and spring with chopped dandelion greens mixed with chopped red and green cabbage, shredded carrot, and chopped onion and garlic, in a vinaigrette of two parts extra-virgin olive oil to one part balsamic.
This was served alongside three-day-old leftover spiral pasta with weed pesto. The day we made the pesto, the flavors hadn’t quite come together, and while my mind wanted to like it for many reasons, it didn’t taste good.
Some people might choke down bitter concoctions because they think they’re good for them, but I’m not interested in giving any food a handicap simply because it’s fresh, local, healthy and free. All of those qualities are important, of course, but the flavor has to be there, too.
Luckily, after a few days, the flavors in the weed pesto matured and came together beautifully, earning a rightful place at our spring tonic table.
The pesto was based on lambsquarter, a common edible weed. (Chickweed, garlic mustard, and many other weeds can also be mixed and matched in these types of dishes.) We made it as follows:
Harvest lambsquarter or other weeds before they flower. De-stem, wash, and dry weeds; mix with the toasted nut of your choice, along with garlic, olive oil, and salt, in a food processor, making pesto the usual way.
With our table laden with wild plants and weedy treasures, Shorty and I ate our spring tonic with pleasure.
Ask Ari: Morel dilemmas for fungi fans
Q: Dear Flash,
Last weekend I found a little patch of yellowish, pale morels by a creek. I was surprised to find these in a completely un-burned area, but after a little research now I understand that these so-called “natural” morels come out earlier than the fire morels.
So now I have the bug, and I want to bring home a big harvest from some local fires. My first question is: Can you give me some tips on finding the fire morels? And since morels have such a wild and powerful flavor, can you suggest a recipe for cooking them with other wild foods?
A: It’s been said, “Anyone foolish enough to ask a morel picker where he/she got them is foolish enough to believe the answer.” And if I say a single word about specifics for this year’s harvest, there will soon be a line of people around my block waiting to come over and punish me in some very creative ways.
So rule #1, especially with strangers, is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But check out http://www.fungaljungal.org/ for general tips on picking morels in Montana (and check out the recipe for morels with wild rice and almonds). You can also go to http://www.inciweb.org/ for information on last year’s fires. Before you go anywhere, call the district ranger’s office to find out about permits and restrictions, which vary by U.S. Forest Service region.
I’ve been enjoying cooking morels with Japanese knotweed, an invasive species that tastes like a cross between asparagus and rhubarb. If you sauté your morels in butter (homemade, from the milk of bighorn sheep, of course), with chopped wild onions, chopped stalk of Japanese knotweed, sherry and a little nutmeg, you will truly be communing with wild America.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.