When the subject of wild foraging comes up, most people think only of hunting wild mushrooms in the spring of the year. Actually, there is a whole wild world of good stuff out there, if you know what to look for and know where to find it.
Just north of where we live grows a patch of wild watercress alongside a spring at the base of a limestone cliff. Watercress is a great addition to a salad and has a mild, distinct flavor all its own. There it is, free for the picking.
July and August present a time to pick berries. First available are raspberries, which ripen at the end of June and continue into the first part of July, then we have blackberries at the end of July and into August.
Wild berry pies come to mind, but this fruity forage can also be incorporated into homemade jams and jellies. I even know a few local foragers who turn out some awesome blackberry and black raspberry wine. Now there is a unique and enjoyable manner for dessert.
One of the wildest foraging escapades I’ve tried is gathering and making bull nettle greens. When I first heard of bull nettle greens, I was a little more than skeptical. Every outdoor enthusiast who has roamed river bottoms probably knows about bull nettles. They are plants covered with micro hair-like barbs that inject stinging venom into the skin.
Brush up against a bull nettle with a bare leg or arm and you will immediately feel the burning, itching effect of the plant’s millions of tiny barbs. Only washing the affected area immediately will relieve the burning and itching. Many times, I have raced to the river to wash off the fiery, stinging barbs.
Gathering my courage and armed with heavy gloves and long sleeves, I collected some new bull nettle plants and some tops of the more mature plants in a plastic bucket. Using a pair of shears (still wearing the gloves,) I cut the plants into manageable pieces for the pot and placed them in boiling water. The boiling water neutralizes the venom and dissolves the tiny hair-like barbs.
Just to make sure, I rinsed the nettles twice in boiling water.
To season the nettles, I browned in olive oil some finely chopped pieces of smoked ham hock and finely diced onion, which I added to the greens and then slowly simmered the combination for another half-hour. Seasoned with a little coarse sea salt, they were delicious.
In early fall and spring I have dug wild sassafras root for sassafras tea. Even though the sassafras tree will grow to be over 60 feet tall, the young saplings about 1 inch in diameter are the easiest and best to harvest. Once you know how to recognize the leaf pattern, the trees are easy to locate. One sniff of the root will quickly confirm it.
Simply uproot the small trees rinse off the roots and chop them into 2- or 3-inch pieces. The roots should be boiled for a half-hour or until the water noticeably changes color. Drain and strain the liquid, and you have concentrated sassafras tea concentrate.
As it now seems with all things unregulated and untaxed, sassafras comes with a government warning. The overconsumption of sassafras tea and its compound safrole may cause cancer.
The tea has been long valued by Native Americans, pioneers and modern-day foragers. The dried leaves of Sassafras, finely ground, make up a standard Cajun spice “file’” that imparts a wonderful taste to gumbo and other Cajun and Creole dishes.
Speaking of Cajun cooking reminds me there is a gourmet feast as close as your nearest Midwest stream or river. All you need is a 4-by-12-foot minnow net, a fishing license and a 5-gallon bucket.
I’m talking mudbugs. Crayfish. Crawdads!
Years ago, I took my young daughters on a foraging trip they still talk about today. Dressed in their swimsuits and wading shoes, I loaded them up in the old pickup truck and, armed with a minnow net and bucket, we set about seining about 4 gallons of large crawdads.
For individuals yet to eat crayfish, they should be thought of as miniature freshwater lobsters. Our local crawdads can be used in a Southern crawfish boil along with Bay Seasoning, lemons and all the trimmings, or the tails can be deep-fried.
I opted for the family to try the tails deep-fried. Now, shucking the tails on 4 gallons of crawdads is a formidable task by anyone’s standards. But, the girls stuck it out and among the three of us we finally finished the bucket.
Rinsing our precious bounty, the take was just a little over a handful. Hard-earned but highly rewarding. Seasoning the tails with a little salt and garlic powder, I rolled them in a flour dredge and dropped them into hot peanut oil. I quickly strained the tiny pieces of tail meat from the oil after only a minute or so.
The small pieces cooked extremely fast, and I drained them on paper towel. To say they were a hit is an understatement. The girls gobbled the deep-fried tails up so fast, Chris and I barely got a taste.
Good eats, a great time and an adventure long-remembered.
State parks photo contest
Help promote the beauty of Indiana’s state parks for a chance to win a seven-day RV rental as part of a national photo contest, through America’s State Parks.
The RV rental, provided by Mighway, is the overall grand prize. Winners in five categories will receive a $500 REI gift card. The categories are: Activities, Friends and Family, Camping, Wildlife and Scenic and Seasons.
Entries will be accepted through July 31. Winners will be announced on Sept. 30. Sought are amazing photos from amateur photographers highlighting the best of the nation’s state parks. Photos must be taken on the lands or within the facilities of any state park in the United States.
Photographs must have been taken between June 1, 2017-July 31, 2018. Complete contest rules and additional details are at www.bit.ly/2JJXsVP
America’s State Parks is an advocacy group to promote and advance state parks systems in the U.S. More information is at www.stateparks.org
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments may contact Jack Spaulding by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to him in care of this publication.