Foraging is an addiction of the best kind
It’s hard to remember when we were bitten by the foraging bug, but it was definitely during our early years of living in the Pacific Northwest. We were not much the outdoor types but living at the base of the Cascade Mountains was the catalyst that got us up and out exploring. I do remember our first “major” hike up the 4100′ Mt. Si. I’m sure to the regulars that travel that well-worn trail, we were dressed as if we were doing a summit trip on nearby Mount Ranier (14,410′). But we huffed and puffed our way to the top and stood there slack-jawed at the view, loving the endorphin rush of our accomplishment. Nevermind that Mt. Si is climbed by folks from 8 to 88, we felt different somehow, and our lives would never be the same.
We immediately planned for our next trip and trips beyond. Somewhere in there, we found berries on one of these trips. First just blackberries. Then thimbleberries, salmonberries, black caps (black raspberries), huckleberries and others. No Google to answer our questions, we read everything we could find on wild edibles. Then came fall and the profusion of wild fungi that filled Pike Place Market, one of the best shopping experiences in Seattle.
There were those first meals out where we ate chanterelle mushrooms and looked at each other speechless after each bite, both of us in gustatory heaven. We saw an ad in the newspaper for the annual Wild Mushroom Show where over a hundred wild mushrooms are displayed in their natural habitat. These dioramas taught us more than any ID guides could. Mid-day, and it was time to eat. Hell, we’re both part Hobbit so it didn’t take mid-day to make us aware of great aromas and anxious bellies. We ate lots of schrooms that day. Sauteed in butter, folded into crepes, stuffed in omelets, or floating in a delicate broth. It was a revelatory moment. Within weeks we started to find our own chanterelles. The years went by, and the foraging became a major player in our lives.
Yes, Maine is a great place to retire. But can we forage?
Although we will forever consider the northwest our true home, our roots are in New England and retirement saw us purchase a home in Maine. As we planned that move, Google became a key resource helping us understand the bounty that was to be found in the Maine woods and waters. We quickly realized there were some amazing foraging adventures ahead. The first wild edible we were introduced to was found on the side of the road. In the trunk of a car. The sign read Fiddleheads, $3 a bag. The guy selling them told us he boiled his for 15 minutes then sauteed them in a little butter. They’ll taste like young asparagus. They didn’t. They were mushy and a little bitter. We were less than impressed. That is until last year when we found them on our property. It was a game changer.
Take only a little, leave lots behind.
I was floored last year when Kathy (a.k.a. the wife) said, “I think we have fiddleheads”. She usually doesn’t make identification mistakes, and indeed as she was clearing brush she found a nice patch of fiddleheads hidden in plain sight. That was when we started to quickly study how the top chefs prepare them. What we saw was far shorter cooking times than what was presented in the various county extension agencies. Yes, you will find numerous references to outbreaks of illnesses over the years reportedly due to eating raw or undercooked fiddleheads. A number of these were from eating misidentified ferns, probably cinnamon ferns. As they emerge they have silver-white hairs and lack the classic groove on the stem. So we felt pretty comfortable when we chose Emeril Lagasse’s recipe that calls for a 3 to 5-minute blanch of the fiddleheads and then shocking them in ice water to stop cooking. It was amazing the difference in eating FRESH fiddleheads. It’s a cross between young asparagus and artichoke. As with anything you forage, make certain of your identification. The cooperative extension agencies of local universities produce excellent guides, and many others can be found on YouTube.
Just in case you are interested in making this dish…
- 1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns
- 6 ounces of fresh 7-yolk pasta
- 4 ounces sweet or spicy Italian sausage (I use a homemade spicy venison sausage)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Grated Parmesan, for garnish
- Emeril’s Original Essence, for garnish
- In a large pot of boiling salted water, blanch the fiddleheads until they are crisp-tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the fiddleheads from the water and shock them in a bowl of ice water.
- Drop angel hair pasta into the same pot of boiling water used for fiddleheads. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes or until al dente.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil. Saute fiddlehead ferns, green onions, and red pepper flakes for 2 minutes. Drain pasta and add to skillet. Toss with a drizzle of good fruity olive oil and salt and pepper. Divide pasta among 4 plates and garnish with grated cheese. Sprinkle with Essence and serve.
To make Emeril’s Essence Creole Seasoning
(also called Bayou Blast)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
When so many chefs package and sell their seasonings, kudos go to Emeril for posting this recipe years ago. It is an amazing spice combination that works well on grilled fish, chicken, and pork.