Going wild: cooking with wild edibles

By Cynthia Martin*

Wild in the Kitchen: recipes for wild fruits, weeds and seeds
Ronna Mogelon
M. Evans and Company, $26.95

Growing up in the suburbs of Montreal, author Ronna Mogelon became interested in collecting and preserving wildflowers, recording details in her field guides. A graphic designer, food stylist, amateur naturalist and chef, Mogelon became interested in edible plants when she moved to her parent's farm and began to explore surrounding meadows and woodlands and began experimenting.

The result is the cookbook, Wild in the Kitchen: recipes for wild fruits, weeds and seeds, that includes 75 recipes, cooking with such edibles as day lilies, milkweed and mushrooms. With more than two dozen reference books listed, Mogelon repeatedly advises to be completely sure what you're picking and to use a reference guide in addition to the descriptions and illustrations in her book (a list of Latin names is included to help cross-reference). She is most careful about foraging for mushrooms and said that some reference books have conflicting advice, and she only gathers the few types with which she is completely familiar. If you go out to pick, she suggests going with an expert mycologist.

The book's editor, PJ Dempsey, was also appropriately intrigued enough to try some recipes, including one for dandelions leaves and has some elderberries stored in the freezer from last year. Since there's not enough to make the jam, she's saving them for when she finds more this year.

"I wanted to make the dandelion marmalade," she said, "but the rain has been so bad that I've been unable to harvest enough flowers to make the recipe. I have lots of that stuff growing around our house; lambs quarters, elderberries, wild grapes, wild strawberries, apples, gooseberries, and sumac."

Yes, but does that translate into serving the recipes at the average New York brunch?

"I plan to do lots of the recipes come summer and I've got plants already staked out," she said. "Part of our horseback ride today in the woods was marking the grapes, apples and wild strawberries so we could find them again once everything comes into bloom and before the local wildlife, deer and birds."
While a user doesn't have to live in the country to enjoy these recipes, and since most can be bought in supermarket, it's only a matter of time before Pan-fried Morels and Pink Clover Vinaigrette allow city-dwellers to pretend they live in the country.

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Shunpiking spoke with Wild in the Kitchen author, Ronna Mogelon:
In the creation of the book, did you have a lot of dinner parties with willing friends?
Yes and no. I had tastings but never advertised them to friends as wild dinner parties. People who would come over to the house -- even to drop off a package -- would be roped into tasting whatever I was experimenting with that day. On one occasion, for instance it was day lily buds. The taste test included whether they tasted better steamed or pan-fried. Butter? Lemon juice? More pepper?

Have you ever eaten anything you shouldn't have?
I have never eaten any mushroom that I was not 100 per cent sure of. I have tried the odd fern that wasn't an ostrich fern. They were too hard to clean and tasted like a brackish swamp. I wouldn't recommend that! Other than that, I really make sure that the wild edible I am eating or cooking is a real wild edible and not an imposter.

How do people living in cities find the stuff? What should they start on first?
I noticed that many wild edibles are now available in stores. Dandelions are common now. Of course, fiddleheads are around. As well, last year I noticed ground cherries at a fancy market in Montreal. I read that lamb's quarters are the new fancy green in New York City. So the markets are the first place to look. For the more adventurous, drive to the country. If you or a friend has a country place, that would be a great place to start. Old hedgerows usually sport an old, escaped apple tree and maybe chokecherries are hiding there. Just save some for the birds.

What is the one recipe you go back to time and again?
Absolutely, the one recipe I have made over and over again from the book is the wild mushroom soup. My parents requested it often. I've had many guests over and served it and absolutely everyone raves about it. I just have to make sure I have enough wild mushrooms. One of the reasons I make it so often, other than the fact it tastes great, is that it uses dried mushrooms, so I make it year round and it seems to taste best when there is at least a foot of snow on the ground.

How did your parents influence the book?
My mom was born in Saint John, NB, and I spent summers there as a child so even though I grew up in Montreal, we always had fiddleheads in the spring. They were never an unusual food, as I was familiar with them since I was a kid. My parents were real go-getters and enthusiastic people, so when I started working on this book, they were always around to help; to taste, pick or make suggestions. My mom was a wonderful cook and really influenced many of my recipes and was into making the plate be visually appealing. Her pet peeve was the idea of serving chicken, mashed potatoes and cauliflower. Just too much white on the plate! My dad was funny. He was never a terribly adventurous eater, not liking lamb, veal or chicken. For this book, he made an exception and tasted everything. One day when he awoke from a nap, I had cooked up stuffed day lily heads and had baked milkweed pod hors d'oeuvres. Most things he liked. Some, well, they're not in the book!

Your next book is a sequel?
Yes, it just seems to be happening. If I have too many dandelion flowers left over from one recipe, I make another. For example, I made dandelion flower jam and it's not in my book. So when people ask what page it's on, I have to tell them it will be in my sequel. Once you get the wild edible bug (so to speak), the possibilities are endless.

Selected Recipes
These two recipes are excerpted from Wild in the Kitchen. For further descriptions on specific wild ingredients with which you may be unfamiliar, refer to the book's illustrations, reference materials and field guides.

Milkweed is fairly common and grows on roadsides and in fields. Many farmers consider it a noxious weed and have tried to eradicate it, but it's the major food source for the monarch butterfly. For humans, nearly every part of the milkweed is edible and tasty. The bitterness of the milky-white juice (hence the name "milkweed") can be blanched away. In the early spring, young shoots are edible and can be used like asparagus. Later in the season, you can eat the unopened flower buds, which are similar to broccoli. In summer, the pink flowers can be dipped in batter and fried, and in midsummer, unripe seed pods can be eaten as a vegetable or stuffed as hors d'oeuvres.

To blanch: Prepare a pot of boiling water and keep it boiling throughout. Place a quantity of milkweed in a smaller pot on an element and pour boiling water over, boiling the small pot for one minute. Drain and fill the smaller pot again by pouring boiling water over the milkweed, boiling in the small pot again for one minute. Repeat this step three or four times. Do not use cold water or the bitterness will set into the milkweed.

Chinese-Style Stir-Fried Milkweed

1/2 - 3/4 lb. milkweed buds
1/4 lb. snow pea pods
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 tbsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. hoisin sauce
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. sesame seeds

Blanch the milkweed buds as in the above procedure, draining in a colander. Transfer to a clean tea towel and shake dry. Wash the snow peas. In a small dish, mix the sesame seed oil, soy sauce, honey, vinegar, and hoisin sauce, stirring well. Heat oil in frying pan or wok until hot and add milkweed buds, stir-frying for two to three minutes. Add snow peas and fry for another minute. Pour the sauce on top and stir quickly until combined. Put into a serving bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.

Variations: any of the following may be added and stir-fried; strips of red pepper, cubed tofu, thinly sliced scallions, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and/or mung bean sprouts.

Jerusalem Artichokes
The origin of this name stems from a confusion of descriptive Italian, Spanish, and Arabic languages, but it's a plant that has never seen the Holy Land! It is an edible tuber from a sunflower plant that grows up to six feet tall, but has a rather small bloom. It tastes like a water chestnut when raw and cooked like a nutty, sweet-tasting potato. It can be baked and used as a potato substitute or sliced and served as a dipping veggie. Blooming in late summer, one plant can yield dozens of underground treasures. Mogelen warns that if you plant them close to home, be careful where you plant, since they are hard to eradicate.

Jerusalem Artichoke Fritters

4 cups Jerusalem artichokes, cleaned & shredded
1 small onion, grated
3 eggs
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
vegetable oil for frying

Peel the artichokes and shred in a food processor or by hand, and place in a mixing bowl. Stir in the grated onion, eggs, salt, pepper, flour and baking powder, mixing thoroughly. Heat oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat. Put large spoonfuls of the mixture into the frying pan and fry until brown around the edges, approximately 3 to 5 minutes, turn over and cook another 3 to 5 minutes until golden and crispy. Place fritters on a plate covered with paper towels and blot off excess oil. Repeat until batter is used, heating oil first as needed. Serve with sour cream or applesauce. Makes 12 to 15 fritters.

Wild plants & pesticides

Given widespread use of pesticides, ensure that the plants you are using are in an area that has not been sprayed. If you live in the area within the Halifax Regional Municipality, become familiar with the new bylaw on reducing and eliminating pesticide use. Signs must now be posted in areas being sprayed for all residential and municipal properties, and you can apply to have your property protected, which includes a buffer zone.

For more information on the Pesticide Bylaw (P-800) and property registration, check the website at http://www.region.halifax.ns.ca or call 902-490-5640.

Another helpful website with articles and reference material is http://www.caps.20m.com for the Canadians Against Pesticides.

*Cynthia Martin is a writer, publisher and publicist who resides in Hubbards, Nova Scotia