This meal was a celebration of foraged food. I am not quite at the point of being able to gather plants myself, but I am utterly fascinated by the idea of being able to go out for a walk and come home with dinner. Is there anything cooler than that? To be self-sufficient in that manner takes real confidence and dedication to studying plants– you don’t want to be cavalier and make a mistake here. There are so many nutritious, delicious, powerful edible plants that most people know nothing about; to unlock all that knowledge is a tantalizing prospect. I am just starting to learn about protein-rich nettles, elderflowers and elderberries, licorice fern, miner’s lettuce, etc. Last spring, I made simple syrup with lilacs; this year I may try eating lilies. It is important for me to say that I don’t advocate wandering into the woods and picking leaves, herbs, flowers, mushrooms, etc. without an experienced guide. Please. Use common sense and be cautious above all else. In my area, there are many guided foraging tours available; do some research so you don’t get in trouble. When in doubt, DON’T EAT IT.
In addition to guided tours, I am lucky to have a source of edible wild plants at my Sunday farmers’ market: Foraged & Found Edibles. It’s like a treasure hunt to shop here– their tables last week featured fiddleheads, nettles, a few varieties of wild mushrooms, wood sorrel and devil’s club shoots, which I had never seen or heard of before. I picked up a bag of wood sorrel, which we love in salads, quiche and this pesto; it is sometimes called sourgrass because of the pucker-inducing effects of oxalic acid. I also got a tiny amount of devil’s club shoots, maybe a cup’s worth, because I was intrigued; I put the wood sorrel and shoots together last night to make a simple pasta dish that was a real treat.
The representative at the Foraged & Found table recommended braising the devil’s club shoots in butter after blanching them. They are visually reminiscent of asparagus tips, though fuzzy and covered in tiny spikes, especially the larger shoots. I had some trouble finding recipes for them online, so I followed his advice and kept the preparation simple. After rinsing the shoots carefully and picking out a few stray leaves and blades of grass, I blanched them in boiling water for 2 mins. and then shocked them in ice water. Drained and cooled, the tougher outer leaves came off easily, and I then cut them into bite size pieces to cook with. The flavor of the blanched shoots is pine-like, though the assertiveness of that flavor seems to abate as you eat more. It made me think of Mediterranean flavors– lemon, rosemary, oregano, etc.– so the use of garlicky pesto seemed appropriate. That’s also why I chose to use Aleppo pepper. For the pesto, I used the same recipe I used last spring, with a bit more garlic this time around. Wood sorrel pesto is the bomb. (I never say that, but it is.) It is bright green, vaguely lemony and just tastes good. It’s such a treat.
With the help of an experienced guide or a company like Foraged & Found, you too can enjoy the thrills of edible plants, whether they are new discoveries or something you look forward to finding for a few weeks each year. Again, please, please be cautious about obtaining safe plants and be sure that what you pick is what you think it is. And when you are sure, enjoy cooking with your treasures! I would love to hear from any readers who have experience with devil’s club shoots– how do you cook with them?
Ziti with Wood Sorrel Pesto & Devil’s Club Shoots
- 1/2 lb. ziti, cooked according to package directions (fettucine would also be nice), 1/2 c. cooking liquid reserved
- 2 T. butter
- 2 T. olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper (substitute red pepper flakes if you like)
- 1 – 2 c. blanched devil’s club shoots, outer leaves trimmed, cut into bite-size pieces
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 recipe of wood sorrel pesto (about 2/3 c.)
- Parmesan cheese to serve (optional)
In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter and add the olive oil and Aleppo pepper. Add the blanched devil’s club shoots to the pan and turn to coat with butter; cover and braise (I use this term semi-loosely) slowly for about 7 min., until tender. Add the cooked pasta and reserved pasta water to the pan and toss gently. Season with salt & pepper to taste. At this point, you can stir in the pesto or serve the pasta with a generous dollop of pesto on each bowl. The benefit of the latter is that it preserves the bright green color of the pesto; wood sorrel grays when heated. The benefit of mixing it all together is that the garlic cooks slightly, so the raw edge is taken off. Either way is delightful. Serve warm or cold with a sprinkling of Parmesan, if desired.
If you can’t find devil’s club shoots, asparagus could be substituted; wood sorrel pesto can be replaced by an equal amount of basil or scape pesto.
For more information about recipes using foraged edibles, check out First Ways, based in Portland, Oregon or Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, based in northern California. These two sites are personal favorites; I gain information and inspiration from them both. Look for similar blogs/companies/sites in the area you live in for more regionally-specific information.