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Spring Forage: Wildcrafted Produce

As Owners of the Co-op, we have access to some of the finest food available anywhere. From the organically raised, grass-fed meats, the wonderful selection of cheeses, the local breads, the fresh local vegetables, and so on, we have a bounty of incredible, high-quality foods from which to choose. Our suppliers are some of the best at their trade, and their expertise is expressed in their products. One of the only places you will find a better product is in nature.

The landscape of Wisconsin produces an abundance of wild foods. There are wild game, clean lakes and streams full of fish, mushrooms, nuts, roots and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some are obscure, such as basswood leaves or milkweed. Others are fairly common, almost to a point where the fact that they’re produced by nature is taken for granted: honey and maple syrup, for example. And then, there are the staples; if you grew up in Wisconsin, at some point you’ve probably gone out with your family to pick wild black raspberries or “black caps.” For many rural Wisconsinites, hunting, fishing and foraging was, and still is, a family tradition.

Spring is a great time to forage. New growth produces young, tender leaves and sprouts, which are often edible only at this time of year. As the plants mature, they harden off and become bitter and inedible; asparagus goes to seed and nettles start to sting. There are a number of books available to help you identify and use edible plants, and the UW’s botany department is also a good resource if you’re not quite sure. Ideally, find someone who has experience, and forage with them. Depending on what you’re looking for, most foragers are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with novice hunters. You can find maps that identify all of the public hunting and fishing grounds in your area, and these are great places to forage. Make sure you’re aware of hunting seasons, and dress accordingly so that others sharing the land can easily identify you. Stay on the trails until you’ve identified an area where you’d like to forage, watch where you’re walking, and only take what you’re going to use.

Foraging is a great way to get out and get some exercise and enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds us. You can start in the spring and go through fall. The experience is one of a kind, and the prize is perhaps the most rewarding meal you will ever eat. We’re fortunate to work with a few folks who offer some wild Wisconsin products, so if you’re not able to head out to the woods to do some foraging, swing by the Co-op and look for purple inserts indicating “Wildcrafted.” Here’s what we’ll be offering in May.

Watercress is the earliest wild green available. It grows prolifically around freshwater springs and streams throughout the state and can often be harvested year round. In fact, it’s so prolific, I think the DNR is considering classifying watercress as an invasive species.

Keewaydin Organics is our primary supplier of wild watercress. They’ll start delivering in mid-April, and will continue through May and into June until the cress starts flowering.

The leaves of watercress are tender, with a buttery texture and a peppery flavor similar to that of mustard greens. Watercress is agreat complement to soups and salads. Its intense peppery flavor adds a little kick, and pairs well with the bolder flavors of smoked and grilled meats and blue cheese.
Watercress is considered a super food. It’s packed full of vitamins, minerals, and flavanoids. Historically, watercress tonics have been used as a spring cleanse. In addition to its medicinal properties, many cultures claim watercress to be an aphrodisiac. Be careful, it isn’t just the flavor of your salad you’re spicing up.

Ramps, or wild leeks, are a member of the onion family. Harmony Valley first started selling them to the Co-op in the mid ’90s, and their popularity has skyrocketed over the decade, which should come as no surprise; they are a delicacy.

Ramps are composed of a few broad, green leafs, and a slender, burgundy stem that fades into a creamy white bulb. Richard at Harmony Valley says they thrive in shady hardwood forests, with rich, loamy soil. They are entirely edible from top to bottom, and are extremely versatile cooked or raw. Unlike cultivated leeks, ramps taste more like mild garlic than onion. And while their flavor is mild, their odor is intensely pungent. You might want to open a window or two when preparing ramps. While they’re available, my family uses them almost every day, and our house just kind assumes the smell of ramps for a few weeks.

As I mentioned, ramps are extremely versatile. You can chop the whole thing up and sauté it as you would an onion or leek. Or, you can take the strategy I choose: separate the greens from the shanks. I’ll get a couple bunches at a time, clean them up, and then trim the leaves from the stems and store them separately. I’ll use the stems as I would scallions or onions, raw or cooked depending on the application, and the greens for just about anything you can imagine. In their most basic state, they make a great addition to a salad; however, the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Ramps pair well with just about any other vegetable, eggs, fish, poultry, and in particular, Dream Farm’s fresh chevre (which you can find in the Co-op’s cheese case). The combination of the two is pure bliss.

As mushrooms go, the morel is perhaps the most elusive, mysterious, and sought after specimen of all. We’ve seen initial prices at the Farmer’s Market as high as $40/lb. Their delicate texture, intensely rich, earthy flavor, and hollow body make them unmistakably easy to identify. It’s finding them that’s the hard part.

Al Stram has been the Co-op’s primary morel supplier for over a decade, and has been hunting them for the last 35 years. Morel hunting is an annual tradition for the Stram family. Al began hunting with his father and grandfather when he was a young child growing up in rural southwestern Wisconsin and continues to hunt with his father and brother today.

Al says the season typically starts around the end of the first week in May, and lasts for a few weeks. Morels do best when there is plenty of moisture, and nighttime temperatures hang in the low 60s. If it gets too cold, they just don’t grow.

While Al wouldn’t go so far as to tell me where he’s finding all of the beautiful morels he supplies us with, he did give me some morel hunting tips to pass along.

  • Morels flourish near recently deceased elms. While you might find a few here and there, Al finds patches of 10-20 pounds around the dead elms. While novices like myself spend most of their time looking down at the ground, Al spends his time looking up, seeking out the dead elm.

  • If there’s no pressure from other hunters, Al leaves the smaller dark morels to mature before harvesting. The small, dark morels mature into the larger blonde morels over a few days, and this enables him to increase his yield. “Why pick a few pounds today, when that few pounds will turn intoa dozen?”

  • During dry years, look for morels in shady areas where there’s a good canopy to provide protection from direct sunlight. Morels need moisture. Like ramps, morels often prefer the north side of a shady slope.

  • This tip is from me: sauté morels with ramps. This combo is going to blow your mind.

We’re all looking forward to seeing these delicious wildcrafted items in the Produce aisle along with our local spring favorites. Stop in and get some wildcrafted items to go along with your asparagus and sweet spring spinach. And, if you have an opportunity to head out and forage for yourself, take it. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

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