Issue 30

Wild Food

Wild Food

The magic of Spring
Is in the resurrection of the Earth.
Green life spouts
From under a crust of winter dormancy
While we wait with our forks
For something fresh to appear.

Poetry aside, spring is my favorite season of the year. It holds the promise of warmth after a long Nebraska winter, and it means that our food options are going to expand. All winter, I’ve been reading seed catalogs, planning my gardens and trying to figure out how I can possibly grow all the plants I want.

Even if you start your seeds in a greenhouse or spare bedroom, there’s a lot of waiting involved. Lots of plants take two or three months to produce our food. So even with all the planting, watering and weeding, it still takes time and effort. And patience, a dirty word in our fast food nation.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for everything. Mother Nature provides us with a variety of spring foods every year. By tapping into our hunter/gatherer past, we can eat all the treasures of the season. And they’re free! All free! This is a huge plus since some of these foods command high prices at farmers markets and restaurants.

How can a city dweller possibly find these tasty tidbits? Take heart: even in Omaha and the surrounding areas, there are foods to be foraged. If you do a little planning, you can access fresh, once-a-year delicacies at little or no cost. To do this, we need to know the details about our environment: the who, what, when, where, why and how of the food world.
Let’s tackle this, item by item:

Wild Greens

Anyone who likes adding flair to salads or side dishes will love wild leaves like sorrel, dock and dandelion greens. These have more spiciness or bitterness than cultivated lettuces, so add them in small quantities until you get used to them. You can also boil them in a couple of changes of water to remove the bitterness. They’re good in mixed salads, mesclun or sautéed. You can find these in your backyard, common areas or on farms, but make sure that there have not been recent chemical applications. They start appearing in April and run until fall, but the smallest, youngest leaves are the tastiest.

Wild Game

If you are into hunting, fishing and trapping, spring is a great time to get out into the wilderness. According to Tom Keith of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, April is prime time for catfish, and mid-May is the best time to troll the Sandhills lakes for bass, panfish and walleye. Spring hunting seasons for turkey and goose are open during April and May, too. This will require you to get a license from Game and Parks, but it’s an inexpensive trade-off. If you’re a newbie, ask to tag along with someone who can show you how it’s done. For carnivores, nothing tastes better than something you’ve killed yourself and cooked over an open fire. (Insert man roar.)

Wild ’shrooms

Duuuude. It’s not like that, but this is the big score. The number one wild mushroom in the area is the morel. It pops up after rains right around Mother’s Day, and mushroom hunters would rather have their fingernails pulled out than tell you where to find their favorite haunts. They grow in the same places every year, but only for about two weeks. Look for shady, wooded areas. Also, take a guide book. Many mushrooms have doppelgangers that will land you in the emergency room.

Foraging requires one big warning: you must have a landowner’s permission to hunt or gather. It is illegal and dangerous to go tramping around a farm, even if you can’t see any buildings. Seek out the farmhouse and ask nicely. Many farmers don’t mind if you explore their land, especially if you offer to share some of your findings or bring a small gift like a bottle of wine. (Or in my case, St. Bernardus Abt 12.)

Spring weather brings Mother Nature out of hibernation, and there are tons of little culinary surprises to explore: meats, greens, even fruits. Buy a field guide to wild foods or print out some images from websites so you know what’s safe to eat and where to look. Take a friend out and have a good time hunting for your dinner. Wild foods are delicious and help us reconnect with our past foodways. Plus, it’s just good to get outside after a long winter.

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