Foraging season is on! In Northern California, Miner's lettuce (left) and fennel (right) are perfect for the picking; as the snow thaws on the eastern seaboard and Appalachia, locals are on the lookout for signs of ramps, and Midwesterners are gearing up for morel mushroom festivals. Forest dwellers know there is only a limited window for harvesting fiddlehead ferns and it is near; New Yorkers can sign up for foraging tours in Central and Prospect Park and learn how to make "Five Borough Salad", and Los Angelenos are mapping the city streets for public domain fruit trees.
Miner's Lettuce (above, left) is a beautiful gem of a wild green. It's round, deep green and has a tiny white bloom in its center. It grows after rainy season in big bunches, so it's easy to harvest and it self sows, so you don't have to be too worried about over-picking.
You should have no problem finding and identifying these, and people will gladly let you harvest them from your yard. While the entire plant -- flower, root and leaf is edible, this time of year, focus on the leaf. Harvest it before the flower comes so it's small and not too bitter. It has a bitter flavor and this can be balanced by cooking it with bacon or in a cream based soup, but that sort of negates some of the health benefits. If it tastes bitter to you, stir-fry it with sweeter vegetables or grate raw beets onto salads to sweeten them up. NYC Foraging Tours: "Wild Man" Steve Brill
Ferns are usually shade-loving plants, so they are often found in forests. In early spring, they start to rise from the ground, in small, tightly curled formations that resemble the shape of a snail shell -- or as it's name fiddlehead suggests, the spiral end of a fiddle. The early blooms of ostrich or lady ferns are edible and should be harvested when 1.5 to 2 inches big and bright green in color. Only take a few from each fern, as the fronds will not be able to come back if you take every fiddlehead and the fern will perish. Use them right away--wash, trim the stems and cut off any brown scales and then sauté or steam them. (Don't eat them raw). They are also delicious preserved in vinegar brine. Wild Food Adventures.
Since fennel (above, right) is often an invasive weed, don't mind helping yourself. In the spring, get the base or bulb of the fennel when it's young. These have a mild licorice taste and are great grilled. (The stalks can be very fibrous and bland if they are older). Young stalks are good diced into salads or sautéed for stuffing. Once the feathery tops of the plant starts to flower, use these golden blossoms for their slight anise flavor and beauty--in a white wine sauce for clams. Northern California: Learn foraging and cooking with wild foods at Relish Culinary.
Ramps: Wild Leeks
Ramps are a symbol of springtime, particularly in the southeast and ramp festivals abound in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. But as spring progresses, they also are found in New England and the Great Lakes area.
Ramps favor the shade of forests, and are found along streams. The overall plant is the size of a scallion, but the leaves differ as they are flat and broad and the bright green is tinted with maroon. Crush a stem in your hand --- it should smell like onions; if it does not, don't eat it. Treat the leaves like spring onions--though some people get creative and make ramp kimchee, the wise cook them with bacon for breakfast biscuits. The bulbs are often treated like garlic cloves and used to flavor sauces.
Tip: When collecting ramps or other plants with bulbs, always replant the "baby" bulbs that cling to the main root. The Native Americans practiced wild managing in this way, and vastly increased yields of wild edibles over time. Ramps and Wild Leeks.
Do not start out mushroom foraging by yourself unless you have a generous kidney donor handy. Find experts or attend festivals and tours to learn about finding the popular fungi, morels. Morels are a springtime mushroom, often following the rains. These are often pinched and twist out of the ground and wipe off any excess dirt off with a small brush. Use them within a week. A popular way of preparing them is to dip them in flour and then fry them in butter. You can also grill morels, and eat them alongside a grilled steak or sauté them with spring asparagus in olive oil with a little garlic. Save them for the dry season by making Morel Duxelles. National Morel Mushroom Festival. Visit City Dirt for a recipe for Morel Duxelles)
Fruit Tree Neighborhood Mapping Projects
The three artists who make up the collective called Fallen Fruit -- Matias Viegener, David Burns, and Austin Young -- started by mapping fruit trees in their neighborhood of Silver Lake, Los Angeles for a project for the Journal of Aesthetic protest. They did some research and learned that it's not illegal to take fruit in public areas, and trees that overhang public property. They moved from mapping to fruit foraging parties that brought together about 40-90 strangers from all different ages. These outings were followed by jam making parties that all the foragers participated in. Fallen Fruit, Street Mapping Los Angeles.