Put on your walking shoes, grab a basket and follow us to the forest for Foraging 101. The Northwoods in spring sprouts a veritable
produce section, and you need not be a botanist to harvest the bounty. Here’s our primer for six easy-to-find treats and two terrific menus—meals worth searching for.
The Greeks of antiquity understood the powerful nature of mint and cast it in a tragic role. They believed that Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with a lovely nymph named Minthe. Hade’s mother-in-law, Demeter, became angry and turned Minthe into a plant—but the more she was walked on, the sweeter she smelled. A torment to Hades, no doubt, but mint’s wild, fresh scent will bring pure pleasure to you.
Nowadays, mint flourishes in Northern Michigan and especially prefers the water’s edge. The various types of mint that abound in our forests share three common traits: square stems, opposite leaves, and that signature fresh scent. Steep wild mint for tea and jelly or pick it to flavor anything from fruit salad to homemade ice cream.
Don’t let the stinging hairs on the nettle’s stalk and leaf bottoms chase you off. When cooked right, nettles go down soft and easy. Besides delivering a subtle spinach-like flavor, nettles come packed with vitamins and minerals. This plant—OK, weed—grows where the earth has been disturbed and by mid-summer soars to 6 feet. But by then it’s too late to harvest nettles. Pick them in early spring when the young plant rises just a foot or so. Wear garden gloves for protection when you’re gathering and preparing nettles. Pick only the tender tip of the stalk and topmost leaves, then steam as you would spinach or make cream of nettles soup.
Here in the North, wild leeks are considered something of a consolation prize for morel hunters. Too bad, because their garlic-onion flair deserves first place respect. Plus, they don’t play as coy as the morel—anybody with a nose can find a leek. Wild leeks are the first shoots up in spring and they carpet the forest floor in a shag of green leaves. To make good use of our Northern leeks’ abundance, we suggest borrowing from our Appalachian cousins—people who have long celebrated the leek. To do as the West Virginians do, fry a couple slices of bacon and set them aside, then sauté chopped and par boiled leek leaves in the fat—Appalachians who like the leeks strong throw in some leek bulbs. Garnish with crumbled bacon. Chopped raw leaves can be mixed with salad greens, or add several chopped and sautéed leeks to cream of potato soup. Voilà: Northern vichyssoise.
Caution: Beginning leek foragers should familiarize themselves with an extremely poisonous (even fatal) plant called the dune lily or death camas. Clues to look for: One of the best clues is that the leek has a bit of red just above the bulb, but the death camas does not. The death camas has a narrow leaf (1/2 inch), which can be mistaken as a member of the onion or chive family. The leek leaf is wider. The death camas often has a spot of deep purple at the tip of its leaf, the leek does not. The death camas prefers sunnier spots, whereas the leek prefers deeper forest.