WILD GREENS

 

Wild foods enjoy an exalted place in the farm-to-table food scene of high resource settings, but represent an important ingredient in the health and sustainability rubric worldwide.

 
 

By Katharine Millonzi
Photography Shannon Greer

 

The story of wild food – the gathering methods, the foragers, and the chefs who make art with these foods – is a compelling one. Wild foods not only remind us of the important relationship between place and product, they offer a means to refine the relationship between human communities and our physical environments. Pressing us to question what defines ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’, can the rediscovery of wild edibles lend itself to narrowing the perceived gap between nature and culture?

The consequences of inappropriate land use, disproportionate water consumption and climate volatility, as a result of human activities, have become global forces that require global awareness and local action. The choice of agricultural systems we promote, the economies we build to support them, and the knowledge we have about how they work, is of fundamental, international relevance, especially with the impending challenge of feeding nine billion people healthily by 2050. Age-old, non-industrial practices of small-scale food generation are increasingly important as the effects of climate change and other human impact events become more marked. The agro-industrial focus on mono-crop productivity and enhanced biological technologies remains a narrow, mechanistic one. Over the past century, this system has resulted in a general dietary shift away from traditional, bio-regionally determined wild foods, yet there is a recurrent recognition of the importance of these traditional food crops.

The art and practice of gathering and cooking with wild edibles are ancient human experiences that we can continue to enjoy today. These culinary delights help to restore our sense of aliveness, by connecting our senses us to vital, health-giving food. We crave green vigor beyond our stomachs; our circulatory system is nourished by consuming greenery during the transition from one state of seasonal being into the next. The tonic properties of Spring’s edible greens physically cleanse our blood and refresh our livers; green is also the energetic color of the heart. So, don your mud boots and head to the woods outside to seek out some of Spring’s best fresh ingredients. Bring your plant identification book, (Foraging and Feasting is one of my favorites) and/or a botanist friend to make sure you’re picking safely and sustainably. Returning home with your bounty, share with loved ones around a convivial table that pleases both eye and spirit - remembering that joy is a fundamental ingredient to our innate nourishment!

Katharine Millonzi is a writer, gastronome, and conscious hospitality consultant. Katharine contributes to a diverse range of food and sustainable agriculture enterprises, and produces mission driven events. Food is her medium to bring messages of healing and restoration for the individual and the collective. Katharine holds an MA in Food Culture and Communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Italy, founded by Slow Food International, and a BA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, in Social Anthropology and International Development. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

 

Whereas summer’s lushness tends to dim our appreciation of abundance, spring sharpens our focus, awakening our appetite for what is invisible during the dormant months. Every year, the poetics of rarity entice us again: the verdant ramp stand against the brown forest floor, pops of colorful blooms materializing out of grey meadows, each plant mirroring the renewal of body, soil, and soul. Spring reminds us that we are an integral part of the universal creative process and mystery of the great ecosystem. Wild edibles remind us that our diets and food cultures, like the equinox, dance between past and future, that gastronomic innovation depends on tradition, and vice versa.

 

Nettles

Infamous to those who mistakenly brush against them, beloved by herbal cognoscenti for their nutritional density and rich color, Nettles (urtica dioica) grow along woodland edges and riverbanks, as well as in meadows. Use gloves while plucking off the top three inches of the young plant’s tender leaves and stalk, and keep gloves on during preparation. Nettle’s stinging “hairs” are deactivated upon cooking, resulting in mineral rich cooked leafy greens with an intense, hearty flavor. Nettles are delicious blanched, chopped, and sautéed with olive oil and garlic. The greens can be used as an omelette filling or as a substitute for spinach in most applications. Chopped nettles can also be added directly into a variety of soups to cook and lend depth of flavor.

Nettle Risotto

A few handfuls of young nettle leaves ( I use the tender top leaves without stalks)

8.5 cups/ 2 liters vegetable stock

3-4 Tablespoons / 50g butter (dairy or vegan)

 One yellow onion, very finely chopped

 2 cups/ 450g Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice

½ cup/ 125ml dry white wine

 salt and pepper

75g cold butter, cut into cubes; (dairy or vegan)

½ cup /100g parmigiano reggiano cheese, (dairy or vegan).

Blanch the nettles in salted boiling water for 30 seconds, drain them and put into a food processor. Pulse to a purée, adding a little olive oil if needed to keep it on the loose side. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Melt  butter in a heavy-based pan, add the onion, and cook gently until translucent. Add the rice and stir both to coat it in the butter and to "toast" the grains. Make sure all the rice is warm, then add the wine. Let the wine evaporate until the onion and rice are nearly dry, then add stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly, each time waiting for the liquid to evaporate before adding the next ladle.

After about 15 minutes, add the nettle purée, and continue cooking, adding stock as you go, until the rice is soft but still al dente (with bite). The risotto shouldn't be too "soupy". Turn the heat to low, allow it to rest for a couple of minutes, then, using a wooden spoon, beat in the cold cubed butter and Parmesan. Season with black pepper and serve.

 


Dandelions

Who doesn't want to eat flowers?  Dandelion (taraxucum officinale) infuse you with cheerful color. Considered a liver and digestive tonic, the leaves of these common meadow flower, which grow in low rosettes, are best picked young in early spring when least bitter ( pick from less trafficked area, not out of the sidewalk cracks! ). Use the leaves to add a high Vitamin C and beta carotene kick to salads, sautés and soups.

Dandelion Flower Fritters

Clip stem off of whole open flower heads. Heat ½ inch of organic canola oil in a skillet.  Dip whole flower head quickly into a bowl of prepared, light, gluten-free pancake batter, and gently place into hot oil, flower head down, turning to fry on all sides until batter is golden brown. Remove from oil, drain briefly on paper towel and serve warm with sea salt.

 

Ramps

Ramps, also called ramsons or wild leeks, are a key marker of  spring’s arrival for the culinary forager. With a taste that is stronger than a domesticated leek, but more pungent and garlic-y than a scallion, ramps’ unique gastronomic qualities have driven their popularity on contemporary spring menus - though of course desire for the ephemeral Allium tricoccum is nothing new. If you have the fortunate opportunity to harvest ramps from the wild, ensure to collect them in a sustainable manner so that they’re available for years to come. Best choice is to harvest only the leaves, leaving the bulbs intact so that they can reproduce for future years. Harvest only one leaf from plants with two or more leaves. This method of practice doesn't kill the ramp or cause soil disruption.

Ramps are wonderful grilled whole. The leaf will plump up and then settle over heat. Ramp Pesto is a wonderfully versatile condiment, to top your favorite pasta, as a spread on baguette rounds with a thinly sliced radish…or in any application where you want a garlicky green kick.  

Ramp Pesto

1 handful of ramps

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts (toasted)

1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese (dairy or vegan)

juice of half of a lemon

sea salt and black pepper to taste

Wash and chop ramp leaves put them in your food processor. You may use raw ramps or blanche them if you want a brighter green pesto. Add walnuts, the cheese, the lemon juice and a good dash of salt and pepper. Pouring the olive oil in slowly, process contents until they combine and look the desired consistency.