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A cook gone wild



If you know what to look for, the world is your kitchen cabinet. Foraging in the spring can be a hungry affair compared to fall's bounty of fruit, mushrooms and assorted edibles in full fruition. No worries — spring rains mean new growth and some tender sprouts that are only edible this time of year. Basket in hand, we head to the woods, the marsh and the side of the road. Time to take full advantage of nature's cupboard.

You'll need some hiking shoes, a trowel, gardening shears and a pair of gloves. A plant identification book is also highly recommended, as even experienced foragers occasionally make mistakes in identifying plants. Please don't eat anything you're not absolutely sure of, and when you do pick a plant, do so carefully. Grabbing wildly may mean mixing in leaves of poisonous plants. In the interest of biodiversity and neighborliness, it's best to only forage a few plants from each patch. After all, spring has sprung and we need to leave the bees some flowers to practice their lovin' on!

First up, the "eat sparingly" section. Plenty of plants are edible, but that doesn't mean you can fill your belly with them. Wood sorrel is a good example. That's the stuff with lovely, dark green leaves tinged with pink coating the floor of our redwood forests that everyone mistakes for clover. It has a tangy, piquant flavor and makes a nice addition to a salad or a fine garnish for a slice of strong cheese. But eat too much of it (say, more than a handful) and you'll be high-tailing it for the nearest comfort station.

Sorrel is high in vitamin C, as are the needles of some other conifers. Light green and tender, new fir needles are great to pluck, chew and spit while hiking. They have a delightful, tart and zesty flavor that makes your mouth brim with saliva. Pine or fir needles and sorrel can also be steeped into tea — a nice alternative to those high-carbon-footprint oranges you'd buy at the grocery store. This time of year, the young shoots and leaves of stinging nettles can be harvested (gloves!) from marshy areas and boiled or steamed. Tea made from boiled nettle tops is a traditional remedy for arthritis, but you'll want to consult your doctor first. Stinging nettles should not be eaten raw. Also in the wear-your-gloves section are thistles. Once you peel away the prickly exterior of a young, not-yet-flowering one, inside you'll find a juicy snack, kind of like celery. If you're in a pinch, you can also boil and eat the older stalks, although they're rather stringy.

Berries are just coming into season, with some bushes on the coast still bearing winter huckleberries. Salal, blackcaps and wild gooseberries will be along presently. But the sweetest treat of the early season is wild strawberries. About the size of your fingernail and infinitely more toothsome than their gigantic commercially produced cousins, wild strawberries are flirts that always leave you wanting more.

Again, there are no belly-fillers in the world of spring foraging, but dock and miner's lettuce can do a good job of staving off hunger pangs. Dock leaves are a staple for roadside foragers throughout North America. It's a hardy, distinctive plant that grows well in disturbed soil. The seeds can also be ground into flour, although it's a labor-intensive process.

Miner's lettuce (purslane) is a little more delicate, although it's prolific in this region this time of year, and delicious. Its name is attributed to the Gold Rush miners who ate it to prevent scurvy. It can be gathered by the fistful in shady, moist spots, and every inch of it is edible from the juicy stalk to the bittersweet flower. High in vitamin C and iron, it makes an excellent salad and is also great food for baby chicks.

A final word of warning: wash everything well. There's something so holistic and right about picking something from the ground and sticking it straight into your mouth, but unless you're picking it from just outside your door, you should probably wait. Nature's cupboard has more than a few dogs peeing in it and uncouth louts spitting on it. Wash twice, wash well and enjoy the bounty.


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