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Wild Edibles: Making a menu with Nettles, Fiddlehead ferns and morels

May 14th, 2010 | Category: Cooking

by Christina & Charles Claassen

It’s that time of year to start harvesting Mother Nature’s wild garden. What makes spring so exciting, aside from the fact that it’s a preview to the summer growing season, is that the available wild edibles are bountiful, tender and light in flavor and texture.
We are all familiar with using wild edibles such as nettles, fiddlehead ferns and morels in basic recipes, but these foods can also be used in gourmet dishes that are simple to make, and elegant on the plate. Before you start creating your own dishes or following these recipes, there are some important things to know about gathering and eating wild edibles.
Nettles are some of the first plants to pop out in the region, and are easy to cook. They are a perennial plant that can be found almost anywhere—in yards, ditches and woods. While hiking through a patch of nettles is not a favored activity, we should prize these greens for their richness in vitamins such as iron, calcium and zinc.
When harvesting nettles, leather gloves protect hands from the stinging hairs that cover the leaves and stems. Luckily, once nettles are cooked, the prickly hairs no longer sting. Nettles can be identified by their broad, jagged, spine-covered leaves. Ask someone knowledgeable to point them out before picking them. According to the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, using the top-most leaves of the nettle plant in early spring and summer provides the best tasting greens. If you regularly trim the top leaves from a plant, you will enjoy fresh greens until fall.
You can cook nettles as you would any cooked green, especially spinach. Drop it in boiling water for 30 seconds, remove from boiling water, and use as you would in recipes that call for wilted spinach (or use a steamer). Some tasty ways to incorporate this wild edible is in recipes such as spanikopita with feta cheese, sautéed with oil & garlic, or in nettle gnocchi.
Morels are another ubiquitous springtime wild edible. Many people like to keep their locations for harvesting these mushrooms closely guarded, but that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. Most people are more than willing to teach about these mushrooms if they sense genuine interest.
Morel mushrooms are unique and easy to identify. They have oval or cone-shaped caps that look honeycombed, and they are brownish-gray. The best way to find these mushrooms with confidence (there are false morels that are toxic, so you must be sure you know the difference) is to go out with someone more experienced. It is also a great idea to have a field guide to compare notes with. David Aurora’s “All That the Rain Promises and More…” is a great pocket guide. According to Aurora, the most common places to find these mushrooms are in forested areas, especially under cottonwoods and alders along streams.
Once you harvest morels, you need to clean them. Plunge them into cold water to rinse out bugs and dirt, but don’t soak them. The most traditional way to cook morels is in butter with a splash of red wine, but the possibilities are endless. Some tasty dishes include morel ragôut, scrambled with eggs and spring onions, or stirred into risotto. You can also dry morels with a dehydrator, grind them, and use the dried powder for seasoning.
Fiddlehead ferns are a fun treat, especially because of their beautiful shape. These are the unfurled stalks of ferns, usually bracken fern in the NW. Fiddleheads get their name from the curled “scroll” of a fiddle. Harvest fiddleheads that are tightly wound and close to the ground as they taste best.
Fiddleheads require a little more attention to cook and prepare. It’s a good idea to remove the yellowish brown skin. Boiling the sprouts twice (changing water between boils, and boiling for 10 minutes each time) also reduces the bitterness by removing tannins. Steaming is a good way to cook the sprouts as well. Add butter-braised fiddleheads to a salad, roast with other veggies, or enjoy in Asian stir-fry.
Get out and start harvesting wild edibles. Bring them home, take out a favorite recipe that calls for greens or mushrooms, and experiment with substitution. The more you explore with wild edibles in the kitchen, the more comfortable you will become with making gourmet meals that come from your backyard. And make sure you know the rules of where you harvest, whether on public land or private property. It’s important to respect the land and the people who keep it, so you have many more gourmet meals ahead.
Morel Ragôut

3 Tablespoons butter
1 pound fresh morels, cleaned, rinsed, and drained
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces sherry or Madeira wine
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 sprig fresh thyme
salt and black pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat the butter until fully melted but not browned.  Add the shallots, garlic and mushrooms, sautéing until the veggies are tender and translucent.  Add the mushrooms and sauté briefly before adding the sherry.  If possible, ignite the hot sherry with the flame of the burner or with a lighter and let the alcohol burn off.  Once the flame dies down, add the whipping cream and thyme, turn the heat to medium-low and simmer until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Season to taste with salt and black pepper.  Ragôut is great over buttered pasta or served in a puff pastry vol au vent shell.

Nettle Gnocchi
3 medium russet potatoes
10 oz. stinging nettles
1 egg
1-2 cups high-gluten bread flour
salt, to taste
Peel & dice potatoes. Boil until soft. Drain and let them cool.  You want your potatoes to be dry and floury.
Steam or boil nettles briefly, just until wilted.  Squeeze out any excess moisture.  Chop them finely or pulse in a food processor.
Combine nettles and potatoes, add egg and mix. Add 1 cup of flour and knead in. Continue to add a little flour at a time, kneading until the dough is soft yet firm (it will still be a little sticky).
Roll the dough into a half-inch diameter rope.  Cut one inch dumplings, and crease them with the tines of a fork.  This is to provide some texture for whatever sauce you choose to toss your gnocchi in to stick to.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Place gnocchi a few at a time in boiling water. It is cooked when it floats to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon.
Serve with a sauce of your choice, or toss with fresh goat cheese and toasted walnuts.

Spring Mesclun Salad with Butter-Braised Fiddleheads, Montasio, and Toasted Hazelnuts
4 ounces fresh spring salad mix (the Farmer’s Markets are open!)
2 cups fresh fiddlehead ferns, peeled
¼ pound butter
2 ounces fragrant, semi-hard cheese like Samish Bay Organic Montasio
2 ounces whole hazelnuts
1 teaspoon hazelnut oil (or other nut oil)

Wash and soak your salad mix in ice water for ten minutes before draining and drying.
Heat your oven to 375 degrees.  Toss the hazelnuts with the oil, place on a small baking sheet and toast in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes.  When you can smell them, they are done, but be careful not to overcook.  Remove them from the oven and let them cool.
In a skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of the butter. When melted, add the fiddleheads and sauté briefly.  Season with salt and pepper, top with the remaining butter and put into the hot oven, basting with the butter every five minutes for twenty minutes.  Arrange the fiddleheads atop your salad mix, add the hazelnuts, and shred a bit of Montasio over it all.  Dress the salad with your favorite vinaigrette or just red wine vinegar and a bit more of the hazelnut oil.

Charles Claassen has been a professional chef for almost 20 years and focuses on using local, organic, and wild-harvested edibles in his cooking. Christina is a freelance writer who enjoys trying Charles’ cooking. Together they run Sprout Catering in Bellingham.

One Comment to “Wild Edibles: Making a menu with Nettles, Fiddlehead ferns and morels”

  1. Bill Bill says:

    Enjoyed this piece very much.

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