The first foods of the year•
Posted on March 29 2022
Canadian winters can seem to stretch on longer than they should. When wild foods start popping up in the States and Europe, we are always weeks behind, our anticipation fueled by reports of morels popping up here and fiddleheads there. When spring finally arrives, there are loads of delicious things ready to start searching for. Here are some of our favorite early spring foods.
Morels are one of the most recognizable mushrooms, popping up as one of the first foods to signal the change of season. Super easy to recognize, morels are often considered an introductory wild food. With a global range and meaty flavour, they are sought after by many people. Often found near former forest fire sites, morels fruit in large amounts when their host trees die. Try searching in organic or disused stone fruit orchards, and near elms, maples and poplars after the soil has been above 10ºC for about 10 days.
Wine cap mushrooms
Also, known as brick cap mushrooms, these are a substantial native North American mushroom, growing quite large if given the opportunity.They love woodchip and decaying matter loving mushroom, and can easily be cultivated for a better button mushroom than the supermarket variety . Don't let their brilliant red cap scare you off! They are a delightful edible mushroom that everyone should try at least once.
As their name would imply, Pheasant backs look like the rear plumage of a pheasant. Also known as Dryad's Saddle or polyporus squamosus, they are now named cerioporus squamosus. When picked young they have a great texture and nutty flavour. Mature specimens become tough and difficult to work with. Look for these striking shelf mushrooms growing on dead elm trees in parks and around fields.
When the snow has melted and the ground softens up, Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes) can easily be spotted by their massive canes flopped over. Related to sunflowers, they grow very tall. Unlike sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes grow from a starchy, sweet and easy to pick tuber you can roast, bake, sautee or puree. Spring sunchokes are the best because over-wintering reduces their inulin content, making them easier to digest.
Scarlet elf cups
Related to morels, these bright red mushrooms are found under branches and attached to fallen logs littering the forest floor. Despite looking dangerous, they are edible and tasty. Though small, they often grow in profusion, making picking worthwhile. Elf cups are unique in that their red colour can withstand a degree of cooking, giving dishes made with them a stunning colour. Great for appetizers and anywhere a striking presentation is the goal. Elf caps are also a sure sign morels will be around soon.
These are a controversial wild food, because while classed as abundant and often carpeting forest floors, they are also in high demand and very easy to over-harvest. They can quickly be eradicated from forests close to urban populations. Be sure to read up on the sustainability of wild leeks before gathering them; (all Forbes' wild leek harvests are fully sustainable.) Wild leeks are an allium with a pungent combination of garlic, onion and chive flavours. Amazing roasted, fried or made into a pesto, wild leeks are a versatile and delicious spring delight.
The furled frond of a fiddlehead has a short harvesting window, as just a few days of warmer weather prompt a grown spurt that unrolls the tightly rolled shoots. Best prepared by soaking in several changes of water so as to thoroughly clean, then blanched briefly to flush out tannins. Discard the blanching water and then proceed to use fiddleheads in soups or braises. They are a unique and delicious sponge for butter. Just be sure to cook them well as you would with anything that grows with its feet in water.
Wild daylilies are a prolific plant with several edible parts. In early spring, when the plants are under a foot tall, and have not yet produced flower buds or a stem, the leaves and root can be eaten. Once the buds appear, give them time to turn yellow before eating. Eating them while green can cause indigestion. Dried orange lily buds are an essential ingredient in many classic Chinese dishes, including hot and sour soup. Keep note that not all lily varieties are edible.
This wild crop grows everywhere, with both native and non native species common. It is easy to identify because only garlic really smells like garlic. Young garlic shoots can be used like chives and as the plants grow you can also use their scapes, bulbs or - my favorite - their seed heads, where each seed tastes like 10 cloves of garlic packed into one tear drop sized seed.
As one of the first things to get growing each year is bright yellow coltsfoot. It is traditionally used as a medicinal flower, but also as a stand in for sodium when the leaf is charred and ash collected.
You know when you have found stinging nettles if you have ever walked past them wearing shorts. The slightest contact with them can impart a mildly annoying itch that subsides fairly quickly. While no fun to handle, harvesting them with gloves on makes pretty quick work of the plants. Either dried or cooked they lose their sting and make an excellent stand in for spinach.
Spruce tips are a special mid-Spring treat. Their zippy, citrus-like fresh flavour works in a myriad of ways from spruce beer to a stand in for capers, in sorbet or with gin based cocktails. Packed full of flavour, and pretty as can be, they taste amazing and a healthy dose of C vitamins.
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