According to the USDA, “In 2010, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all food is projected to increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent”—yikes! I try really hard to keep within our food budget. I also try really hard to serve my family food from local, sustainable sources. Fortunately, a little bit of foraging can supplement our family’s food supply while providing the chance to get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. It’s almost like Mother Nature is enticing us with her “value meal.” So let’s check out some of the free eats found in your backyard.
Acorns have been harvested for many years by the Native Americans and were known as “grain from trees.” It is believed that many more millions of tons of acorns have been consumed by humans than wheat, rice, and other grains. The nutritional benefits of acorns are many: they contain complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals and they are very effective at controlling blood sugar levels. They have low sugar content but leave a pleasantly sweet aftertaste and are also low in fat (for a nut) but high in fiber. Acorns can be ground into a flour or used in stews as a thickener.
One drawback of the acorn is that it tastes bitter due to the tannic acid it contains. This bitterness varies from species to species; Red Oaks (the leaves with the pointed tips) tend to be the most bitter and require more leaching whereas acorns from White Oaks (leaves with rounded lobes, pictured here) usually need little or no processing.
The nuts will be ready to harvest in September to October; just be sure to get them before the squirrels and other wildlife arrive. Lay them out in a sunny place to dry and to kill any insect eggs or spread them in a single layer on cookie sheets and bake on low for an hour or so. Then comes shelling—pop the cap off and crack with pliers or a nutcracker until the yellowish nutmeat can be reached. Place the nutmeat into boiling water and boil until the water is dark brown (about ten minutes), strain, place in another pot of already boiling water; continue until the nutmeat is no longer bitter (about three to four water changes). The moist nut meat can be used right away in cooking but if you are looking to save it or turn it into flour, dry it in a dehydrator or in a low oven. Acorn flour should be stored in a refrigerator or freezer since the oils in it can make it go rancid.
By the way, the dark water from the leaching process is full of tannin and can be used for all sorts of things. It can be used as a dye for clothing if combined with a fixer and it can also be used as laundry detergent. Add a couple of cups to each load of wash but this is best avoided with whites. The water is also medicinal—it is antiseptic and antiviral and can be used to help with skin irritations like poison ivy and rashes, gargled for sore throats, used as a tea for diarrhea, and it helps externally with hemorrhoids. And, as the name suggests, it can be used to “tan” animal skins.
Apache Acorn Cakes by Jackie Clay
- 1 cup acorn meal, finely ground
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 1/4 cup honey
- pinch of salt
Mix the ingredients with enough warm water to make a moist, but not sticky, dough. Divide into 12 balls. Let rest, covered, for 10 minutes or so. With slightly moist hands, pat the balls down into thick tortilla-shaped breads. Cook on an ungreased cast iron griddle; you’ll have to lightly peel an edge to peek and see if they are done. They will be slightly brown. Turn them over and cook on the other side.
Modern Pemmican by Jackie Clay
- 1 lb. lean stewing meat, cut quite small
- 1/2 cup dehydrated wild plums or berries
- 1/2 cup acorn meal
Boil the lean stewing meat. When it is tender, drain and allow it to dry in a bowl. Grind all of the ingredients together in a meat grinder using a fine blade. Grind again, mixing finely, distributing the ingredients very well. Place in a covered dish and refrigerate overnight. (Or you can eat right away, but like many foods, the refrigerating allows the flavors to blend nicely.) You can serve this on any flatbread, such as a tortilla. It is best served warm; you can reheat it in the pan in the oven like a meatloaf.
Puffball mushrooms are good for the beginning forager because they are one of the easiest to safely identify. As the name implies, these mushrooms look like giant, white puffballs and once they are mature, any outside pressure will cause the spores to eject in a puff (don’t breathe in the spores as they can irritate airways). The best time and place to look for these mushrooms is after a warm, rainy day in the late summer or fall in fields, lawns, or on dead wood. Be sure that the mushroom is pure white throughout, with a consistency of cream cheese, and that there is no wet-dog smell, soft spots, worm holes, insects, yellow color inside, or powdery spores.
While larger puffballs are easy to identify, smaller puffballs could be confused with some other mushrooms. Immature amanitas look similar, but an amanita will have a stem and gills when cut open whereas the puffball will have neither. An immature stinkhorn will have layers of slime inside—fortunately, puffballs will not. Finally, poisonous earthballs begin small and white, but they are hard, and will remain hard as they eventually become black inside.
Puffballs have an earthy, pleasant flavor that can withstand most forms of cooking; they can be sautéed, simmered in soups, and baked in casseroles. Cooking times is about 7-15 minutes.
Puffball Marinara Sauce with Ramps from The Wild Vegan Cookbook by Steve Brill
- 1/4 cup olive oil, or as needed
- 6 cups wild leek (ramp) leaves or scallions
- 3 onions, chopped
- 3 celery stalks, sliced
- 2 cups puffballs or other mushrooms
- 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 3 26-oz. jars of tomato sauce
- 3/4 cups any wild or commercial wine
- 2 tbs. fresh basil or 2 tsp. dried basil
- 1 tbs. bayberry leaves or bay leaves, enclosed in a tea bag or tea ball if desired
- 1 tbs. parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper, ground
- 1/2 tbs. oregano, ground
- 1 tsp. sage, ground
- 1/2 tsp. rosemary, ground
1. Sauté the wild leeks, onions, celery, mushrooms, and garlic in olive oil over medium heat 10 minutes or until the onions are lightly browned, stirring often.
2. Meanwhile, bring the remaining ingredients to a boil over medium heat in a large saucepan, stirring often.
3. Add sautéed ingredients, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, 1 hour.
4. Remove bayberry leaves.
Use with pasta, vegetables, loaves, or burgers. Makes 12 cups.
Food writer Jane Snow once described the flavor of ramps “like fried onions with a dash of funky feet.” Ramps, or wild leeks, are a big deal here in southern Appalachia. Friends and neighbors surprise each other with brown bags full of ramps when a wild patch is found and entire festivals are held in honor of one of the first wild edibles to appear in the early springtime. Classrooms may become more stifling, not just because of springfever, but also because of the odor of ramps emanating from the students who have been indulging.
But ramps taste wonderful—a strong mix of onion and garlic. Even the smell is sometimes described as “strongly onion” or “strongly garlic” (and be sure that the plant you are looking to harvest does smell strongly, as the lily of the valley can look similar but is not edible). They are found in early spring, around April here in North Carolina, and are widespread along the Appalachian mountains and are found in smaller quantities in southern Canada. The bulbs look similar to scallions but their leaves are flat and broad. They can be used in any dish that calls for scallions or leeks (though you may want to use less of them than is called for until you’re used to the flavor) but traditionally, ramps are fried with potatoes, eggs, and/or bacon. An additional bonus is that ramps are considered a spring tonic (and science has shown that they contain high levels of selenium and sulfur).
Ramps with Bacon and Hard-boiled Eggs from Diane Rattray
- 1 pound ramps
- 4 to 6 slices bacon
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 hard-cooked eggs
Cut cleaned ramps into 1-inch pieces; boil in salted water for 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, fry bacon in a heavy skillet until just crisp. Remove bacon and dice.
Drain parboiled ramps and place in hot bacon fat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and fry until tender. Serve garnished with bacon and boiled eggs, chopped or thinly sliced. Serves 4 to 6.
Yum, berries are one of the foragers’ favorites. It’s probably not necessary to go into the wonderful food sources of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries—those are known to many. But most people don’t stop to consider the edibility of some other common berries, ones that might be sitting like jewels right next to the blueberries you’re already collecting.
Elderberries like to grow in rich, moist soil and can be found growing throughout the U.S. and Canada. They used to be planted on homesteads because of their food gifts and because they’re believed to ward off evil spirits and lightning, but now they are mostly a wild plant. They’re usually a shrub of about five feet tall but can grow into tree-heights of thirty feet. In June and July, tiny white blossoms on umbels appear. These can be harvested and are often turned into elder-flower fritters—just dip into pancake batter and deep fry.
Elderberries, however, are most delicious when they ripen into blue-black berries in late summer. Do not eat elderberries raw, avoid using the stems, roots, or leaves and avoid the elders with the red berries. But definitely harvest the ripe black berries and use them for elderberry wine (in fact, the liqueur Sambuca, is flavored with elderberries). Many also claim that elderberries make the best pies.
Elderberries are an incredibly medicinal plant as well. Use the flowers and/or dried berries for teas that cure a wide range of ailments or make a medicinal syrup out of berries; the teas and syrups are highly effective for boosting the immune system and fighting colds and flu.
Preheat oven to 350. Make a double pie crust. Mix one quart ripe elderberries thoroughly with one heaping cup of sugar, one tablespoon cornstarch, one tablespoon lemon juice or cider vinegar, and three tablespoons of melted butter. Pour them in the bottom crust. Cover with the top crust. Press the top and bottom crusts together, make some slits in the top to let steam escape, and bake the pie until golden.
Chokecherries (or Wild Cherry)
Not the most appetizing name around, for sure. But chokecherries are so abundant, and can be so delicious, that it would be a shame to not make use of this free food source. Some believe that this large shrub/small tree is the most widely distributed tree in North America, ranging from the Arctic Circle down to Mexico and from coast to coast.
While the chokecherry prefers rich, moist soil, it can also be found in poor, dry soil, in open woodlands, near homesteads, and is even cultivated as an ornamental that attracts birds. One mistake that may cause people to turn down the chokecherry is picking the pea-sized fruits before they are ripe. The fruits should be dark purple, almost black, without a hint of red. Even then, it’s best to let them continue to ripen for a week, if you can keep the wildlife away. If the fruit is harvested too soon, it is very tart and astringent.
Chokecherries can be dehydrated, turned into juice or wine, or, most commonly, made into jelly or sauce. Cook whole, washed cherries until tender in a little water or apple juice. Remove the pits by putting them in a ricer or potato masher and mashing them. The flesh will press through the ricer, creating a sauce like cranberry sauce, while leaving the pits and skins in the ricer. Heat this sauce with sugar to taste. You could also make jam with the cherry flesh by adding an equal amount of sugar and the juice of one lemon, slowly cooking until it reaches the desired thickness, while stirring often. (Recipe from Katie Lyle)
These weeds are not the easy to harvest due to the tiny needles that grow along the leaves and stems—this plant hurts if you brush up against it accidentally! But it’s oh-so-good for you and delicious. The plants are dull green and square stemmed, with heart shaped leaves and clusters of greenish, yellow flowers; they are about two feet high. The weeds can be found just about anywhere, but I’ve always run into patches in damp spots near water sources.
The best time to harvest nettle is in the spring when the stems and leaves can be lopped off. If harvested later, the leaves can taste a little gritty. Nettles are one of the most nutrient-packed plants around, with high doses of protein (for a plant) and vitamins A and C, and other nutrients such as calcium, iron, and histamine (yes, it’s great for relieving spring allergies). Nettles are a wonderful spring tonic and are also very useful for pregnant and postpartum mothers. They can be steeped into a potent tea or steamed with some butter and lemon juice. I have also enjoyed nettles in lasagna—just use it in any recipe in place of spinach.
And, yes, the sting disappears as soon as nettles are dried, steamed, or cooked.
Wild edibles provide a combination of wonderful opportunities. While harvesting nature’s bounty, we have the chance to spend time out-of-doors, move our limbs, spend time with family, and prepare some of the most delicious and nutritious food possible—all for free!
The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts by Katie Letcher Lyle