If you know me then you know I love food. And if you follow my blog or have ever met me you might know that I’m especially fond of wild food, and, if possible, even more fond of sharing it with others. There is something so magical, so primal and so deeply healing in going out to a wild place and foraging for food. Whether at a far away and remote mountain top or in a city park there is always something edible and delicious to be found growing freely (and free!), serving as a delicious reminder that food is all around us, constantly growing, shifting, changing and always offering a tantalizing taste of something once forgotten, possibly foreign but oh so natural all at once.
On Being a ‘Foodie’
My friends often describe me as a ‘foodie’, a title that makes me feel both fond and slightly disdainful to be associated with. The word ‘foodie’ often conjures up images of quasi-intellectual yuppie-hipster types with wannabe food critic tendencies, consuming pretentious foods with even more pretentious attitudes. And yes, maybe there is a bit of truth to this. But underneath the big shades and big words often lies the core of the foodie, a genuine lover of food. Someone who sees a meal as more than just fuel for continuing an already too fast paced day. While foodies are often associated with enjoying abstract and complex meals they are just as likely to enjoy simplicity as well; eating a whole apricot or a slice of melon, for example. For a foodie these ‘meals’ become symbols of something pure, wholesome and wholly good. Because the foodie often has an interest in where their food comes from and how it was produced it’s likely that the apricot is at the peak of ripeness or the melon is perfectly sweet and balanced. When these foods are at their peak, they need no fancy frills to make them better. The good foodie knows this and uses this knowledge effectively. When a peach is, perhaps, just a little under ripe, the knowledgeable foodie might split it in half and grill it to caramelize the developing sugars, maybe adding a drizzle of honey to further enhance the peachy goodness. Rather than view these tendencies as pretentious, one can view them as tools for connecting with something we do everyday: eat. They are powerful ways to transform what is too often an automated and thoughtless process into an enjoyable, sensuous and healing ritual.
More often than not I think fear plays a big role in keeping people from enjoying wild foods. While there are certainly many factors that may keep one from enjoying wild and wonderful foods, the fear of things foreign seems to be a recurring theme. Being a foodie, it’s true that I’m more open to ‘different’ flavors; going past the usual salty and sweet I often cook with ingredients ranging from bitter to sour and everything in between. I think many people fear things that don’t taste like either chips or ice cream. There is so much involved here and on so many levels: genetic components, memories and emotions associated with certain tastes and foods, fear of change and of things that taste different. So much goes on when we eat that we don’t even realize. Which brings me to accessibility, making wild foods accessible for those that may not have ever had, or even thought of having, something from the wild. I believe, mostly because I’ve seen it happen countless times (including with myself!) that tastes can change. It may take time but after a time, what often may have once felt harsh begins to mellow out. Flavors that were once viewed as intense become intense cravings and one may begin to desire more, becoming more adventurous by the meal. Of course, we don’t just go from eating from a box to eating a diet of bitter summer dandelion greens in one fell swoop, at least not often. This is why, for those new to foraged goodies, I like to find wild foods that have some element of similarity to more modern-traditional foods. It’s approachable and respectful to both the person eating it and the plant, often resulting in a wild food convert and a lot less waste of unwanted and abstract wild foods.
For the month of June the Wild Things Round Up is featuring Mint and Mint family plants (Lamiaceae). I’ve pretty much been a lifelong foodie, so it might come as a surprise to you that I only recently learned to love Mint (Mentha x piperita). I was never one to love, or even like, minty things. You can take all my York peppermint patties and Life Savers, I’ll keep the chocolate, thank you. I started to enjoy mint slowly, mostly out of what I felt was a necessity. Many (including myself) found it odd that I was “the herbalist who doesn’t like mint”. The first mint that I really learned to enjoy was Spearmint, much less ‘cold’ and spicy than its close relative, I found the liveliness of Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) to enliven my mind and ease my often rumbly belly. As I delved into Mints I found that a sprig or two of fresh Peppermint went rather nicely with a tannin rich black tea, cutting away some of the bitter and adding a non-caffeinated and much needed pep to hot, humid days. Bit by bit my taste started to change and I found myself adding fresh mint to much more than tea. It was great with rich meats, cutting the fat and adding a sparkle of cool energy. It was great chopped fresh over summer berries, aiding their cool nature and playing delicately on their intense sweetness. Nowadays I can even drink straight up peppermint tea, but I, more often than not, prefer it as part of a mix in tea.
Cucumbers are a funny little vegetable. I can’t count how often I hear how bland they taste and before I gardened, I couldn’t agree more. Cucumbers often tasted of little more than plain water and I always found myself adding intense flavors to them to make them taste like, well, something. Then I grew my own cucumbers and to my surprise I realized just how much flavor a good cucumber can have all on its own. Still, it’s rather rare to get those perfectly perfect cukes and more often than not they need just a little something to jazz them up. Not much mind you, just a little enhancement to emphasize that wonderful cooling and mildly sweet flavor. A little vinegar and oil with a touch of salt and pepper and maybe some fresh chopped mint makes a wonderfully simple and cooling salad on a sweltering day. In fact fresh mint is a near perfect addition to cucumber salad: aromatic and slightly spicy to balance the sweetness of the cuke and the richness of the oil. Patience! I can hear you now “but I thought this was about accessible wild foods?” And so it is. Let me tell you about nature’s cucumber.
Cattails (Typha sp.) are a common and easily recognizable plant by most people. A member of their own family, Typhaceae, they tend to grow in aquatic places, preferring to have their feel wet or at least moist. While there are a number of varying species, all Cattails can be used the same. Cattails are a great ‘beginner’ wild food not only because they are easily recognizable but also because they have many edible parts. The starchy roots can be boiled or baked to make a sweet, potato like food. If you have the time and energy, it can even be milled into a nutritious flower. The mature male flowers, producing the recognizable brown hotdog like appendage, produces a lovely deep golden pollen that can be added to breads, pancakes and the like. But my favorite part is the early spring shoot which is sweet and crunchy and most comparable to a flavorsome cucumber. Abundant and widely available across the country this wild vegetable can be eaten both raw and cooked and made into a number of delicious meals. During the summer months, when the cattails are gaining speed and gathering energy to flower the shoots can still be harvested, just remove the outer sheath to reveal the juicy, crunchy inside (hint: it should be easily crunchable and not be difficult to chop, if it is, continue to remove outer leaves until you hit a tender core).
Cucumber and mint seem to go together like peas in a pod. Aromatic, slightly spicy and deeply cooling mint leaves are the balancing act to sweet, cool and crisp cucumbers. It’s also a relatively known summer meal, easily recognizable by foodies and non-foodies alike (read approachable). And just as these well known culinary delights are made for one another, so too it seems are their wild counterparts. Often found growing together, wild mint complements the sweet crunch of young cattail shoots quite perfectly. Add a dash of vinegar and a bit of oil and you have a wonderful cooling salad to accompany grilled fish or chicken. Most any vinegar will do though I am particularly fond of violet and rose petal vinegars as they add just an extra touch of coolness and flavor. The only vinegar I don’t recommend using is balsamic as it tends to overpower the delicate taste of the cattails (trust me, I’m a foodie). Add a little chopped fresh mint and voilà!
Minted Cattail Salad
4 cups cattail shoots, de-sheathed and chopped
4 Tb rose vinegar (or other vinegar)
5 TB Olive oil
¾ tsp Salt
¼ tsp. pepper
2-3 TB chopped fresh mint
Add all ingredients together and mix. Let marinate a few hours before serving with grilled fish or chicken.