Put on your walking shoes, grab a basket and follow us to the Northern Michigan 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 the Northern Michigan forest 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.
Watch this video to learn how to identify leeks, and and then head into the kitchen to make our famous potato leek soup.
The morel’s earthy, full flavor and wily hiding ways have made it the North’s most treasured forage bounty. And surely the mushroom’s culinary versatility has also played a part. Morels can go casual, making, say, the lowly hamburger into a gourmet dish, or they can dress up for a formal occasion—a little wine and butter makes that an easy transformation.
After you’ve picked your net bag full (always use net bags so that as you walk, the spores drop to make more morels), head to your kitchen and slice the morels lengthwise. If you want to eat your cache immediately, soak the morels in water to remove dirt and bugs. Then sauté for soups, stews or sauces, or just devour the whole dang skilletful as is. Morels are also delicious breaded. To preserve your ’shrooms, dry them in a low oven and store in airtight containers. Reconstitute by soaking in water.
Violets taste as delicately delicious as they appear. And just as sweet is the pleasure of the search—an excuse to wander the forest on a lovely spring day. The violet makes an easy forage treat, too, because the entire violet plant is edible. For the most convenient use just drop violets into salads. But mix a light dressing so as not to overwhelm the violet’s gentle nature.
With a little more work, you can crystallize the blossoms for pastry decorations. Here’s how: Holding the stem, dip the blossom into an egg white beaten until frothy. Next, dip the blossom into superfine granulated sugar and place on a wax paper-covered cookie sheet. Slide the sheet into a 200º oven for about 40 minutes or until the sugar crystallizes.
For another exquisite treat, pick the flowers of the flavorful common blue violet to make a pink-hued jelly.
Before you enter the woods, know that while all wild violets are edible, three varieties are illegal to pick in Michigan, even on private land: Northern marsh violet (Viola epipsila), New England violet (Viola novae-angliae) and prairie birdfoot violet (Viola pedatifida). Also, you need a permit to pick the bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata). And finally, the green violet (Hybanthus concolor) is listed as a species of special concern.
Lawn freaks might view dandelions as a pestilence, but nutritionists view the sunny plant as a vitamin storehouse, better for you by some measures than spinach and broccoli. The open-minded find numerous uses for dandelions—which are entirely edible. Try frittered flowers or a coffee-like beverage made from drying and grinding its roots. A simpler use: add the young greens to salads. Pick the leaves early in the season—before the flowers shoot up. And don’t gather them from sprayed lawns. So why do we treat dandelions so rudely, anyway?
So now that you’ve gathered all your forest treats, what’s next? Here we offer recipes for two gourmet, four-course meals featuring nature’s delicious delicacies.
Recipes: A Foraged Brunch
Recipes: A Foraged Dinner