There is a great benefit to researching and writing about being fit and healthy. It’s the fact that if I don’t practice what I preach, then I’m a hypocrite…and since I don’t want to be one of those, it’s great motivation to ensure I make every attempt to follow my own advice. Last week, in my post Sense of Nature, I wrote about the benefits for all of us, children and adults, to be active participants in nature. I’m happy to say, I was able to embrace nature in a big way this weekend, thanks to an early start of the 2013 foraging season.
Every spring, when we see a little green on the trees and in the fields, and a few warm days, my husband and I get obsessed with foraging, or as I keep hearing in the media these days, wild-crafting. This is where we head out into the woods, search for mushrooms or edible plants or berries, or whatever we can collect in the wild with confidence that when cooked, it won’t make us sick.
Foraging was not an activity I was ever familiar with growing up. When I tell friends this is one of my hobbies, sometimes I hear them wax poetic about how so-and-so’s grandmother in France or Italy showed them which mushrooms or plants to hunt for as a child, and they had vivid recollections of amazing ethnic feasts, with these prized edibles taking center stage. This romantic scenario wasn’t the case for me, my parents weren’t the woodsy-type, or the type of people who would take a risk eating something they personally had to identify as safe. Although eventually, thanks to Whole Foods stocking some of the same wild mushrooms we fed them ( but charging zillions of dollars per pound), they learned to trust we were not going to poison them.
When I moved to Vermont as an adult, that’s where my education on wild-edibles began. Here, in many places, the forest is open and beautiful and you can really meander around comfortably and see the forest floor without getting poked in the eye with twigs or branches or brambles, or assaulted by too many ticks. Black morel mushrooms are the first to come out, and where I live, we see them along old paths in the woods. A few weeks later we see yellow morels, often near white ash trees.
What I love most about collecting mushrooms, or berries or wild plants in the woods is that it’s like an unstructured scavenger hunt. You look for clues: a certain tree. the elevation, the slope of the ridge. The sun. Moss. The weather that day. The moisture. And when you get it right, you are sometimes rewarded with the prize.
And probably more often, you get the location right, all the elements for success are there, but you find nothing and you are left scratching your head wondering what the heck you did wrong.
Regardless of mushroom success or failure, we usually come back relatively happy, because what we tend to find in the same locations are big beautiful patches of wild ramps, or as they are sometimes called, wild leeks. My husband used to think of these as kind of a consolation prize when we came home empty-handed on the mushroom front. But since, I have come to love them as much, maybe even more. They are much more abundant, predictable, and come back in the same spots every year. When I have them, I cook with them pretty much every night, adding them on homemade pizza, or on top of a burger, in omelettes or over pasta or grains… They are the best when the bulbs and leaves are slowly sauteed in olive oil until crispy, with a little sea salt.
Oh, I’m off topic here, I’m supposed to be talking about exercise and nature, not eating…
So this weekend, I didn’t even have foraging on the radar because it’s so early in the season. But I happened upon a recipe for Wild Ramp Pizza that looked so good.
Hmmm, I wonder if… ??!! Maybe I’ll go check…
We happen to have a reliable ramp patch near our house. I quickly grabbed my waders and boots, and ran down along the river (it’s easier to do that than run through a tick-infested field), and within a few minutes, realized I hit the jackpot. Sometimes early in the season you will see many ramp leaves, but the bulbs are too small. Not so this time, there were a bunch of them. I didn’t bring a pack basket with me, because I didn’t really expect to find anything, so brought back just enough for dinner that night and surprised my family with my prize. I made my super-slow-cooked crispy saute perfectly and served it over quinoa.
The next morning, when the timer rang, signaling to my 8-year-old son Brett that he had reached his Minecraft playing limit, I came over and asked him if he wanted to take a hike down the river and get more ramps for dinner.
“Can’t I just play for 5 more minutes!”
Not this time.
More ramps for dinner? He was on it.
We brought the pack basket this time, so we could collect a little more than just a handful.
It had to be the most beautiful day. A nice breeze. 70 degrees.
There were no critters in the backwater ponds for Brett to catch with his net, what he usually focuses on while I do all the work, but once he looked up and saw that field full of ramps, he pulled out his small shovel, and even though they were tough to pull out, he took great care in selecting, cleaning and helping me fill the pack basket.
On the way back, we stopped and made some rock sculptures on the river beach, and later that afternoon came back to the house tired and happy and proud of our catch.
Foraging is such a perfect activity from start to finish.
Fresh air, lots of exercise, mental relief from being in such a beautiful outside environment, and a great time to talk to family and friends. Let’s not forget too, at the end of the day you get to cook a really special meal reminding you of the time and patience and care it took for you to gather the ingredients.
As for me? I’m psyched because the season has officially started. It’s almost never as easy and hiking down the river to find what I want, like I did this past weekend. It’s more of a puzzle. A hunt, and not always a sure thing. But that’s what makes it fun, engaging and kind of addicting! Now that I have had that first taste of it, I’ll be more motivated than ever to shift my focus from winter indoor exercise and grocery-store produce, back outside and back to nature, something essential for us on so many levels.
Hiking in the woods. Rambling on paths. Wading in the river.
Ramps. Fiddleheads. Mushrooms, Berries…
Let the hunting season begin!
If you are interested in learning more about foraging and collecting edible plants, there are so many books and field guides and apps to use. I learned through knowledgeable friends though, and think it’s probably the safest bet to have someone show you how to identify the plants or mushrooms in person. If you have a friend who is into it, invite yourself along–and if not, look to see if you have a local nature organization nearby where you can learn with guided instruction.
I’d love to hear your foraging stories too, please do tell!
My son-in-law is a forager. His expertise is wild mushrooms. Too bad he now lives in the concrete canyons of NYC! Prior to moving, he would dry mushrooms and present a large bag for us to use. Very delicious, satisfying, and best of all FREE!
Chris! that’s wonderful you have someone you know who can teach you. I’ll bet he can find some ramps and mushrooms close enough to NYC :)….we do the drying thing too–invested in a gigantic dehydrator but unfortunately last year we didn’t get enough to dry! I’m trying to figure out the best approach to saving the ramps though–freezing and drying don’t seem to work. I’ll bet you have places where you live where you could try this…??! hope so!
Oh ya! Still have some ramps in the fridge can’t wait to get up to the island and do our first big hike in the woods! We sometimes get morels but not many….wonder where your secret spot is tehe. Happy hunting sooooooooo excited.
Erin–I was hoping the photos I added here didn’t keep the geo-tagging on it when I posted them….I was shocked to see they pinpoint exactly where I find them when I upload them to the web!! not something to pass around on that way… Happy hunting for you too—look forward to hearing how you do this season!
My missus used to go foraging for mushrooms when she was a child and probably can still remember which ones will kill you and which ones make you hallucinate!
For me, it was a childhood collecting berries.
We don’t do it any more because you never know what poisons are sprayed on the hedgerows.
Sadly now, foraging involves local market/supermarket 😦
ooh, such a bummer, you are right. I do think about that when I find ramp leaves a little too close to a corn field but tend to stay in the woods –I don’t think the poisons get that far in. thanks for your story!
Reading your post makes me imagine the sun on my skin, the breeze in my hair and the smells of spring all around me. Can I come with you next time?
it’s exactly like that Maggie–I so wish you could come with me….some day! I’ll bet they have them where you live though…check it out!
Foraging looks very fun and very delicious! We’ll have to get there again some time and you can take us on a tour!
thanks for the comment–would love to, although I would bet you have some of this stuff near you. I’m sure the boys would love it!
Curious about your recipe for wild ramp pizza… sounds intriguing. Did it turn out?
AJ, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Funny, I added that link to the pizza recipe in one draft but then pulled it out in an edit…but here it is! I think we may try it this weekend–I have been lazy and making the sauteed ramps all week….never tire of them! http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2013/04/ramp-pizza/