Thursday, March 19, 2009


My initial title for this piece was "Absence of Artichokes Leads to Creative Native Cuisine." From the beginning of the year until now, when the first green sprouts start to peek their heads out of the ground, I've been dreaming about gardening. I don't have any space where I now live, but that doesn't stop my brain from whirring while I page through the seed catalogs. One thing quashes my giddiness. I currently live in Zone4-5. That means some more tender plants that grow well in, say, Italy's 8/9/10 zone will not be able to be grown here.

I just finished reading an article on artichokes-where they come from, how to cook them, how they figure in food history. Imagine my sadness to realize that these lovely globes cannot grow well in Wisconsin. However, my sorrow was short lived as I noticed with glee that the first dandelion of the season was sprouting on my front lawn.

Okay. Dandelions are not artichokes. But I've read nettles have a distinct artichoke-like flavor. And then there's the sunchokes that grow wild here in the Midwest, not related to artichokes except by their similar-sounding name (also called Jeruselum Artichokes), but considered a healthy delicacy. The more I thought about it, the more I grew excited to investigate the many delicious or at least new and different foods that will soon be growing all around me.

One of the first things to do is to recognize that these natural items may have different effects on your digestive system than cultivated crops. So eat with caution until your body acclimatizes. Also, be 100% sure that what you are gathering is what you think it is. Don't think you have smooth sumac when you really have poison sumac! This goes triple for mushrooms.

As I started to look for items, I soon grew weary looking up to see if each and every one was truly native, or if it might be an edible invasive. In the following paragraphs, you'll see I've mixed the two groups around at will. I mostly was looking for foods that grow wild, regardless of their original origin.

I started my search with the plants I know. Borage and nettles are two leafy vegetables that can be gathered. The prep time for these will turn out to be more than one might be use to-first you have to find them and pick them. With borage, the larger leaves might be too fuzzy to eat. You may want to stick with using the flowers for garnish. Another thing borage can be used for is herbal remedies (juice from the leaves or oil from the seeds can have soothing effects. Please research dosages and recommended preparations.) With nettles, use only young plants or tender leaves from older plants. You will need to use gloves because they are called "stinging" nettles for a reason. Again, these can be used for herbal remedies-everything from tea to hair rinse! And the ways to cook them is almost endless. You can rinse them after you get home, then place them in hot water for 20 minutes. This will make them able to be used in just about any way imaginable.

Lambsquarters and pigweed are edible, but there are concerns about toxins and so it should be eaten in moderation. Milkweed flower buds can be gathered and steamed and taste like a broccoli / cauliflower hybrid. Catmint (or catnip) can be used to make tea. Elderberries grow wild throughout the area I live in. The berries can be made into syrup, jam, used in scones and made into wine. And many people know that dandelions can be harvested and used in salads (as long as they are small enough), dried, chopped and roasted roots can be made into a tea, and the flowers can be made into wine. Wild horseradish grows around here, as do wild grapes, blueberries, small blackberries sometimes called black caps.

Burdock root can be dug up, scrubbed, and sliced razor thin. Simmer 20 minutes or until tender. You may also sauté it, but add liquid and cook it in moist heat another 10 minutes afterwards, or it may not get tender. You may also harvest the burdock's immature flower stalk in late spring, before the flowers appear, while it’s still tender and very flexible. Peeled and parboiled for 1 minute to get rid of the bitterness, it tastes like artichoke hearts, and it will enhance any traditional recipe that calls for the heart of artichokes. Cook this for another 5-10 minutes.

I'm not going to get in to mushrooms too much since they are a dangerous hobby if you're not careful. However, my Dad is an armature mycologist with a whole bookshelf of id books, and so I've had some of the more easily identifiable species such as puffballs, chicken of the woods and (of course) the delicious wild morel.

I expanded my search to include historical foods. I looked at Laura Ingals Wilder books, as well as Native American cuisine. Tribes such as the Hochunk ate corn, especially sweet corn on the cob, nuts, beans and squash. They tapped maple trees for syrup, hunted venison and wild birds, and ground acorn into flour. Wild honey is available, although I wouldn't recommend foraging for it.

Freshwater fish are one huge business in Wisconsin. From the Great Lakes to small streams, you can have whitefish, catfish, pan fish (sun, bluegill), northern pike, walleye, trout or smelt. Smoking or pickling fish is one historical way to store them for later use.

If you add back in to your foraged menu famous local foods such as beer, milk, cheese, sausages, cranberries and apples, you can have a pretty well-rounded local pantry. Let the foraging being!

(P.S. Leave it to Wikipedia to have a nice list of Native American foods.)

No comments: